Disclaimer: I'm not muscling in on JK's turf - just gambolling on it, like a spring lamb, having fun working out the literary and psychological puzzles which she is having fun setting us
"I suppose," he observed glumly, "that if I do let Adrian and Poppy write me up, I'm going to have to tell them about my, ah... about Hermione. You know what I mean, Minerva."
"I hae the glimmerings o' an idea. But if they've got this far without discerning your guilty secret, they can continue to not discern it, surely."
"That isn't the point. We're talking about something which may be used as a precedent for treating other victims of - of such attacks, and which will at least endeavour to approximate to scientific truth. Under the circumstances, leaving out important information would be falsification - it would be intellectually dishonest, and it might make the account of my treatment, my recovery, less valid as a tool for treating others." And the more he thought about it, the more he hated the idea of lying to Adrian, even by omission.
He held up his hand to forestall the obvious comment, whether she had been going to make it or not. "Lies and deceit were my stock-in-trade, as a spy, but I never lied out of mere self-interest, and to other people's detriment: and if the thing isn't going to be either accurate or useful, there's no point in doing it at all. No, this... facet of my treatment, my recovery, will have to be at least mentioned - without naming names, of course." He grimaced. "And you know what that means."
Minerva bit the head off a ginger newt with precise malice. "You're going to have to break it to the old goat before he reads it in the Prophet, or he'll lay an egg."
"He will anyway."
"A belated Easter egg, I imagine, painted with puce and lemon stripes. Do you want me to do the honours?"
"No I - I'm not going to skulk as if I'm ashamed of it. Even if I am."
Talking to Albus wasn't the only encounter to be dreaded. Walking unsteadily but with increasing confidence towards a meeting to discuss his own security, with Draco surreptitiously hovering at his elbow, he rounded a corner and found himself eyeball to eyeball with Parvati Patil; who stared at him with a doe-eyed, wounded look which made him cringe.
"P-Professor Snape" she said uncertainly, backing up. His eyes took in the hacked-short hair, which had been tidied into a bob during her visit home, and the grey unhealthy tint underlying the usual chestnut of her skin. The blasted girl looked as if she hadn't slept for a month.
"Miss Patil." How she must hate him, the cause of her sister's ruin: but he was damned if he was going to roll over and show his belly like a frightened pup. He had spent his life consigning people who thought he was a friend to Azkaban, in any case, and it never got any easier.
"I - I wanted to come and see you, Professor, but I -" Tears welled in the brown eyes. "I was too ashamed...." she finished, almost too quiet to hear.
"Don't be. Please. It wasn't your fault." He looked at her curiously. "I thought that you might blame me for... for what happened to your sister."
"Oh no I - you weren't to blame because P-Padma hated me so much that she, she -" Her voice threatened to break down into a wail. "I'm so s-sorry for what she did to you and I thought you must hate me too -"
Draco coughed. "If Se- if Professor Snape thought like that he certainly wouldn't be talking to me: my father did - did a lot worse than Padma."
"But it's m-my fault, sh-she hated me so much that she did such a wicked th-thing, and now she's, she's never coming home, she'll die in Azkaban and I'll never see her again -"
"Miss Patil!" Severus said sternly. "Listen to me. You are right to grieve for your sister, but you mustn't blame yourself because of the bad choices which she made. No-one knows better than I that tee- that young persons may be led astray by Tom Riddle and his hollow promises. Or that the consequences can be - disastrous."
"Lupin's right," growled Moody, studiously not meeting Severus's eye - a thing for which Severus was on the whole grateful. Even after all that had happened last year, he still associated the paranoid old bastard with memories which made him shudder and flush with shame. "If Snape's going to be walking about whenever he feels like it, multiple copies of the Marauder's Map are a good way to monitor everyone who goes near him, without an attacker being able to silence the people doing the watching."
"I don't really like the idea that someone will be watching me even when I'm in the lavvie or the shower," Severus muttered, "but I suppose it's no worse than having my guards follow me to the door."
"Do I understand that there were blank patches on the original map?" Filius asked in his high, precise voice. "Spaces into which the person using the map could not see?"
"Yes." Remus nodded vigorously. "It couldn't see the Chamber of Secrets because it didn't register as really part of the castle - it wasn't in the castle's morphic field. And we deliberately tweaked it so it wouldn't see into Hagrid's hut because he didn't like the idea of people watching him all the time, either. But we can adjust that: and making new copies for security surveillance is easy. We each had our own copy in any case, although mine, which Filch confiscated, was the only one to survive: the others were lost with their owners, one way or another."
"The more security, the better," Mad-Eye Moody said gruffly. He looked up, meeting Severus's gaze directly for the first time since he had sneered at the young ex-Death Eater coughing up blood on the floor of a Ministry holding cell, nearly seventeen years ago. Severus was surprised to see embarrassment and even guilt there, insofar as it was possible to tell past the distraction of the eponymous mad eye. "Voldemort is bound to take Snape's recovery as a challenge: we don't want any of those bastards trying to take up again where they left off."
"I appreciate the fact that you were, ah, defending my honour, Battersby, but don't do it in the corridor unless you're sure no one else can see you. Five points from Slytherin for getting caught. You'd better take that ear to Madam Pomfrey - no, on second thoughts...."
Battersby gazed at him with wide-eyed, unnerving, squeaky thirteen-year-old adulation as Severus carved the air with his wand, singing a lilting buzz of magic under his breath, and the split ear ceased bleeding and began to reseal itself.
"Thank you sir," the third-year boy breathed: "I promise I won't do it again, sir."
"What won't you do, Battersby?"
"Get caught, sir."
"Correct. Oh, and Battersby?"
"Five points to Slytherin for a well-performed Furnunculus hex, and serve Yaxley right for not picking on someone his own size."
"Yessir. Being small makes me harder to hit, sir!"
"God!" he said shakily, when his fan-club had taken himself off to double Herbology: "I should have stayed in bed."
"What was that, then?" Adrian asked, peacefully steadying his friend by the elbow. "Was that magic, leik, or some sort of infection?"
"Magic," Severus replied tersely. "They had an argument apparently - about me! - and Yaxley, the big boy, tried to use a Slicing Hex - a Slicing Hex, on a third year!" He had, he remembered uneasily, used Sectumsempra on a schoolmate himself - but that had been carefully controlled, and against a member of a gang of boys his own age who had launched an unprovoked attack on him, and at least one of whom had previously tried to kill him. "Battersby countered with a hex that raises boils, as you saw."
He was glad that it was Horace, not himself, who would have the task of disciplining Yaxley - a convinced Voldemort supporter, a sworn enemy who wished his House Master to be given back to the torturers, and yet a near-child for whose safety and well-being that House Master was responsible. It would be horrendous to have to decide between being over-harsh, or being too lenient in an effort not to be over-harsh.
"So this Slicing Hex, that's like using a flick knife?"
"Mmm, except it can be projected at a distance. And like a physical knife, it can be used defensively, but Yaxley - I don't believe he could have felt Battersby was going to do him serious harm. His uncle is a Death Eater and... very fond of knives of all kinds." Unconsciously, he touched the scars which extended from the corners of his mouth. "The boy just wants to follow in his uncle's literally bloody footsteps, I imagine."
"D'you want me to sort him out?" Millie Bulstrode, his guard for the afternoon, cracked her knuckles ominously. Draco had been sent to escort Yaxley to the hospital wing and make sure he didn't either collapse on the way, or do a runner; and Leon Jaquin was some distance behind them, acting as a rear-guard.
"That's - good of you to offer, Bulstrode, but I don't want you getting yourself arrested so soon before your NEWTs. It's bad enough that you're wasting time on me when you could be studying."
"That's all right, sir - he could be part of my practical Defence project."
"Just - let him know you're considering it." He detached his elbow from Adrian's supportive grip and took a step forwards, towards the steps which led down to the sanctuary of his own rooms: but his foot misjudged the distance to the edge, it still hadn't the sensitivity that flesh and blood would have had, the false knee failed to lock and in an instant he was falling forwards, face down; the dark edges of the steps were rushing up to smash him into oblivion and then he collided embarrassingly with Bulstrode's warm, padded bosom and half slid from her grasp to crash down on one knee - the prosthetic one, which was something, but the blow jarred through his much-abused hip and all the way up his spine until his teeth clacked together like gunshot.
"Fuck! Severus!" Adrian was beside him in one annoyingly elastic bound. "Are you all right, man?"
"Yes I - all right, I think." He felt light-headed, and was afraid he was going to be sick, but nothing seemed to be broken. Above him, Jaquin appeared at the top of the steps, flicking his chestnut curls back behind his rather large ears and striking a consciously heroic "on guard" pose in the smoky torch-light.
Severus accepted the hand-up which Addy offered him. "Thanks. And thank you, Miss Bulstrode: your reflexes are admirably quick."
It was a novelty to find himself wobbly with shock over something which was in the present and not directly part of his torture. As he tried to steady himself the join between flesh and falsehood gave at the hip again and he almost measured his length, there at the bottom of the steps. "Shite!" He grabbed at the curly bracket of the nearest torch to steady himself. "Addy I - I don't know if I can do this, my hip - not working."
"That's all right, man, you can borrow my shoulder instead. It was working before, wasn't it? You'll just have shaken it loose, or something - come on, you can lean on me -"
"But it's always - going to - fucking - come loose." White rage rose up like a sudden tide and overwhelmed him, and he hammered his fist against the wall with a wail of despair. "Broken - broken like a fucking puppet and where's the rest of me, my feet, my hand I can't be this, this thing, this half-of-nothing stumbling bloody wreckage -" He choked, feeling his chest constrict, and wondered distantly if he were having a heart attack.
Behind the pounding of his own blood in his ears he heard Adrian saying "Sev, steady, take a breath!" and Bulstrode's voice exclaiming "Professor!" but he was blinded by his own sudden tears: by overwhelming grief for the part of him that was lost.
"Oh, God, I can't, where have I gone, they took me - I used to, to hold her hand when we were children, I walked in the stream barefoot but they cut me up and took my feet away and what gave them the right, the right, Yaxley, Pettigrew, Macnair to cut me apart and fucking disjoint me like a fucking side of meat -" He slammed his hand against the wall again, so hard that the flames danced.
"Shh." Adrian made a firm attempt to gather him in and embrace him, although he was so much shorter that Severus ended up with his chin resting on the other man's woolly curls. "Nothing gave them the right - they had no right. They were just - thieves, leik. Breathe for me now, good man."
After an anxious case-conference, with Severus by now rather sulkily stretched out on the bed in his quarters while the experts poked and prodded, Filius declared that the development of a callous over the hollow where the younger man's hip-joint had been was interfering with the neurological feed into the false leg. He proceeded to adjust the disturbing-looking limb, tut-tutting to himself as he set it to bending at the knee and wiggling its toes, all alone on the table yards away from its owner.
"I half expect him to produce a sonic screwdriver," Adrian muttered. "That's -"
"I remember. Lily and I used to watch it at her place - from behind the sofa."
Adrian gave him a wry, sideways look. "I'll tell you what, man - I couldn't not notice that even when you were hyperventilating and hammering on the wall, you were doing it with the artificial hand...."
"Of course. Half out of my mind I may be, but I'm not stupid."
To Hermione, who was bound to find out about it in any case, he explained his wild outburst of grief and rage as a simple panic attack brought on by frustration and the shock of the fall; although she looked at him dubiously, and he feared that she was unconvinced. When he suggested to her that it might be time to spill the beans about their relationship to Albus, she began chewing her own hair without apparently noticing that she was doing it, but she agreed that it would be a relief not to feel any longer that she was deceiving the Headmaster. With a nervous, almost hysterical giggle she added that it wouldn't be half as bad as breaking it to Harry and Ron.
"Albus I -" He put the essay he'd been marking down on his desk, and cleared his throat. "This is - difficult but - please don't be too angry, but I have a confession to make."
"I'm sure it's nothing too bad, dear boy," the Headmaster murmured, without taking his eyes off the pages of Knit-Wits' Monthly. "I find your sins are seldom so grave as you imagine." He dabbed his fingertip against his tongue and used it to turn the page. "Ah, Fair Isle socks! So, what is it you wished to tell me?"
Severus drew a deep breath. "Hermione Granger and I are having an affair. We haven't technically had sex yet, but we fully intend to."
Albus blinked, lowering his magazine slowly. He closed it, laying it tidily in his lap, before turning to look over his spectacles at Severus with the penetrating look that he knew perfectly well still turned every present or former student to jelly. "I'm sorry, Severus, perhaps I misheard. Did you just tell me that you have been... 'carrying on' with Miss Granger?"
The surge of irritation which had impelled Severus to speak so bluntly dried on his tongue and left him struggling not to stammer. "I, um, it's not - not as shallow as that makes it sound. It's - we're - serious."
"Indeed." Albus frowned, bushy eyebrows lowering. "Yes, well, a teacher - even a temporarily incapacitated one - engaging in any form of romantic relations with a student is very serious, as I am quite sure you are aware. Whatever possessed you, Severus? And..." He paused, an unwelcome realization dawning. "For how long has this been going on?"
"Since early March - although I'm given to understand that she had been, um, interested in me since early in December."
"I do hope you're not going to suggest that Miss Granger seduced you."
"We seduced each other," Severus said wretchedly. "And I'm not - not a teacher any more, or I wasn't then anyway, and at the time I didn't think I ever would be or I wouldn't have -" He realised that he was gabbling, but it was very hard not to. "What possessed me was realising that for the first time in my life an attractive girl who wasn't a Death Eater was interested in me - that way - just when I thought no one would bear to look at me again ever and finding out that she - that I could talk to her without having to bloody simplify all the time to suit somebody else's limited intellect and she -" He drew breath, almost choking. "...that she was my equal or my better in so many ways," he finished quietly.
Albus cleared his throat. "Yes, well... Miss Granger is a charming and intelligent young woman, of sterling character, and I can... understand that, given the close proximity the two of you have been in these last months...." His voice was almost convincingly calm and understanding, with only the faintest thread of annoyance. "However, to follow through on that attraction, while you are both still members of this school... the last thing we need now, Severus, is a scandal. If anyone found out...." His eyes narrowed again. "As I'm sure at least one or two persons must have, by now. Would you be kind enough to enlighten me as to who knows?"
"Well, um, Neville Longbottom - he realised that there was a potential um, attraction there even before I did - and I'm fairly sure that Miss Lovegood has worked it out although she hasn't said anything specific."
"To be sure." Albus nodded thoughtfully. "They are both very observant young persons."
"Then, ah, I had to tell Draco because Pansy Parkinson had already worked it out and I wanted him to hear it from me first, and I'm not sure if Pansy told anybody else but Minerva had a word with her about it and she said -"
"'Minerva had a word with her'? Am I to understand that you informed Professor McGonagall, but not...?" He looked away for a moment, clearly collecting himself. "There is at least a chance, I suppose, that your Slytherins - given their oath of fealty - will not risk causing you trouble by spreading this particular gossip any further. As rash as I still believe that action to have been, at least there may be some benefit to it now." He looked at Severus again, disappointment clear in his face. "It is still a very grave risk which you have taken, quite apart from the ethical considerations, and if you were unable to work that out for yourself then Minerva should have warned you - seeing that you saw fit to confide in her."
"I didn't," Severus muttered. "She worked it out for herself, from observation. I hadn't intended to tell her either, at that stage: it was all so - so uncertain, so delicate, that I was afraid to upset the balance."
Albus made a sour face. "She worked it out? Whereas I did not, it seems. I appear to have been lax once again, in regards to you." He sighed. "Oh, don't make that face. I didn't mean that I should have been watching you in case you made trouble - although this might certainly do it! But I should have been more observant of your emotional state. That is why I'm sitting here with you, after all, and yet I didn't notice a thing. Tch." He shook his head, looking absurdly like an elderly, disapproving saint out of a stained-glass window. Only the magazine spoiled the image. "But you really ought to have told me, Severus. As Miss Granger's Headmaster, and your employer, not to mention your friend...."
"I don't know if you are my employer any more - I don't know what I am now, or whether I shall teach again in the future. And I don't know what - what information one should give to a friend. Not being used yet to having any. Before - before all this, if I tried to talk about anything difficult you either ignored me or raged at me and I know that things are different now but I don't know it enough to rely on, and Minerva said that what you didn't know wouldn't hurt you...."
"It could hurt me very much, if I were to find myself confronting a furious parent or governor about a scandal I knew nothing about. I shall have this out with Minerva later. I cannot be too angry with yourself or Miss Granger, seeing that you apparently had the Deputy Headmistress's sanction for this... escapade: but she should not have given you her sanction for something so irregular without consulting me first."
The stern look shaded into an expression of wounded dignity. "And I know that in the past I have not always shown you the consideration you deserved, but things are, as you yourself admit, different now. I confess that I am - hurt, Severus, to think that you concealed something so fundamental from me. These past six months, I had come to regard you almost as a son."
Severus raised one long eyebrow. "And did you always discuss the details of your sex life with your father?"
"My father died in Azkaban when I was twelve."
"Oh. I'm - very sorry. I hadn't heard."
"There is much about me that you haven't heard, but right now we are concerned with what I hadn't heard. Stick to the point, Severus."
"Then I will rephrase my question - did you discuss your adolescent fumblings with your mother? Or other surviving older relation?"
"Certainly... not. Very well. I do take your point. But really, Severus - even if you are not currently or officially a teacher at this school you have been one until very recently. You must have realised that skulking around with a current student was... inappropriate, and yet you say you are planning to take the matter further. I must insist -"
"I'm not her teacher," Severus snapped, "and you are not my employer at present - at least I, I don't think so. I don't mean... I would not wish to reject your friendship but if I have to choose between you and Hermione.... She wants it to be permanent, Albus, and I find I want that too."
The old man's expression softened slightly, though he still looked disapproving. "And I am... not unaware of how much that must mean to you," he said quietly. "To have found... someone." Someone who is not Lily, his tone said.
Severus rubbed his face tiredly with his hands, unconsciously tracing the lines bisecting his cheeks. "I - we - haven't discussed marriage as such but we don't intend to keep it secret once - once I am fit to be seen in public, and we did discuss the fact that I was her teacher up until last year, with each other and with Minerva. I'm not teaching or marking her, so I can't be said to have any power over her schooling, and as for awing her into bed with the knowledge that I used to be her teacher, the fact that I've spent six months dependent on her charity even to go to the bloody lavatory...."
"I would certainly prefer that you had postponed this development until she finishes her schooling, but the heart does as it wills, as I am well aware. However, though I acknowledge your point about discussing one's sexual escapades with one's parents, as the person who will have to handle the media frenzy if this ever gets out, I would have appreciated being told earlier. And it would be a frenzy, Severus - I'm sure you remember the hysteria over Harry Potter's love-life during the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and this would be more thrilling still."
"Oh Lord, Albus - I'd forgotten about the way Skeeter tried to paint Hermione as some sort of Scarlet Woman toying with Potter's adolescent affections...." He thought about that for a moment. "Still, she, er, she has a certain influence over Skeeter which she didn't have before - please don't ask me what, but I'm fairly certain she can strong-arm Skeeter into playing the story as a slightly irregular engagement rather than a five-star scandal. I, um, I do intend to make a public announcement at some point, so that the whole thing is above board and the parents are reassured that I am... that my relationship is all with Hermione and I'm not some predatory seducer who's going to debauch their acne-ridden brats." He grimaced. "That's one of the advantages to my being a Slytherin - half the pure-blood girls get engaged while they're at school anyway, although not usually to a former teacher, and the Slytherin parents won't have a problem with the idea that I might be out for what I can get.
"By announcing it ourselves we can control the publicity to some extent, and at least prevent it from being portrayed as some sort of clandestine intrigue." He met the other man's hard blue gaze at last. "But don't ask me to end it, because that isn't on offer."
"Well, at least you've considered some of the ramifications." Albus nodded, and then twinkled at Severus almost benignly. "And I will not ask you how Miss Granger has managed to gain influence over Ms Skeeter, though I am immensely curious. But do keep in mind that Ms Skeeter is not the Daily Prophet's only reporter, and that others may muckrake even if she will not." He shook his head. "I will only implore you to be careful, Severus... for her sake, as well as your own. I would not like to see Miss Granger's undoubted competence and scholarly ability called into question by... unfortunate implications."
"If you're trying to emotionally-blackmail me into giving her up, old man, it won't work. Adrian, Poppy and I are planning to write a paper about my... my experiences, my treatment and recovery, and it will have to mention the fact that I have, um, begun to recover sexually, if it is to be accurate enough to be useful." He gave an almost-laugh which turned into a cough. "Enough people already know enough to work out that it must refer to Hermione, and she would look far worse if it appeared that our relationship was a, a casual fling, or something covert that we were ashamed of. She would be accused of toying with my affections, as they imagine she did with Potter's."
He favoured the other man with a tight, mirthless smile. "No, Albus, even though I am - less than happy with my own rôle in this, at this point the only thing to be done is to brazen it out and admit to it publicly - at some point after Hermione informs those two oiks she hangs around with, and before her NEWTs, so there can be no accusations of secret favouritism. All she gets from me academically is support and, and a certain amount of coaching, which only puts her on a level playing-field with my Slytherins anyway, and I won't have anyone suggesting that I influenced her results in any other way."
"I'm not trying to blackmail you, Severus... just to caution you to be very careful. Both in whom you allow to find out before you announce this, and how you word that announcement. I'm sure you know that both of you will be under a great deal of scrutiny." Albus opened his magazine again. "I would suggest, perhaps, that you stifle your loathing for sentiment, this once, and allow the matter to be presented as a great romance... she, tending your heroic but shattered form, yearning to be by your side forever but determined to return you to health, as your lonely heart was warmed by her tender compassion - " He broke off with a chuckle at the look on Severus's face. "Yes, I know, but treacle sells almost as many newspapers as scandal... especially treacle from you, who has always loathed it so."
"It would be easier to take if it wasn't so accurate," Severus muttered. "I dispute 'heroic', but the rest is too close for comfort. I dislike the idea of taking something so genuine and making it look so - so plastic, excuse the Muggleism, but if that's what it takes to have a love-life without ruining Hermione's reputation, or the school's...."
"At any rate, it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared. He was playing the 'more in sorrow than in anger' card which, believe me, is preferable to the other way round."
"I suppose that's something." Hermione had been sorting her Ancient Runes notes, spreading them out on any unoccupied portion of mattress, but she paused to smile at him. "I'm not quite looking forward to the next time I see him, but I think I'm glad that we don't have to worry about him finding out from someone else, anymore. Are you?"
"Very." Severus shuddered. "You seem much more blasé about it than I expected, given that you started eating that explosion you call your hair when I told you I was planning to tell him about it. " He levered himself up stiffly from the couch and crossed the room to join her. "What's that you've got there?"
"I'm not blasé, I'm just trying awfully hard to be... I don't know, mature and calm about it." She made a face, putting down the pile and shifting to make room for him as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "Chewing on my hair and getting all worked up about it made me feel... silly, afterwards. And I don't want you to think I'm silly, just because the thought of Professor Dumbledore knowing that I've fallen madly in love with a former teacher makes me feel all... cold and squirmy." She smiled ruefully. "Like Trevor, when the huge and terrifying Potions master is about to revert him to a tadpole."
"Trevor is actually disturbingly warm, except for his feet. I was afraid for a moment that Albus would try to split us up and I was going to have to fight for you tooth and nail - but fortunately I was able to point out that enough people knew or suspected about the relationship already that parting us would have made you look like some sort of fickle Jezebel, or me like a cold-hearted seducer, which would be much worse than just admitting we were serious about each other. Not that I would have let him - split us up, I mean. Is that your NEWT project?"
"No, just my notes for Ancient Runes. I made an awful mistake on my Ancient Runes OWL, and if I did the same on my NEWT...." She actually shuddered, thinking of it. "And if he'd tried to separate us, I would have fought too... and Slytherin would probably have risen up in revolt." She leaned over the bed to kiss him lightly on the cheek, and went back to sorting her notes. "I'm really behind on my revision... I'd get more done if I wasn't trying to study with Harry and Ron, but if I don't they'll just start slacking off and making mistakes, and I know you said I shouldn't fuss over them so much but school's nearly over, and I'll probably never have another chance, and I will miss it...." She pulled her study timetable out of her pocket, and started tapping the piles of notes with her wand, colour-coding them to match the timetable.
"What will you miss? Coaching those two lunkheads - of which I can but say, rather you than me? Studying itself?" He pushed Crookshanks firmly towards the middle of the bed, so that he could slide under the covers and lean back against the raised pillows with his fingers, both the real and the false, laced behind his head. Much to his chagrin, an afternoon nap was still a necessity, and the day was too wet for dozing on the lawn. "And you can't have made too bad a mistake at OWL" he added, amused: "You did get an 'Outstanding', as I recall."
"Oh, it really was dreadful... I got so nervous that I confused ehwaz with eihwaz, and I didn't realize until afterwards... oh, I was so annoyed with myself! And I'd been studying like mad, then, for weeks and weeks; I'll probably do something even worse this time!" Her voice had got a bit shrill, and she fiddled with her timetable. "I really will miss Harry and Ron dreadfully, and looking after them and everything, but if they make me fail my NEWTs because they're not taking it seriously I'm going to turn them both into weasels!"
"Which I'm sure will be a vast improvement. I find it helps if you concentrate on associating the characteristics of the runes with their visual appearance, not with their name as it is written in English." He frowned at her. "Really, Hermione, you must know that your encyclopaedic memory is already very well-stocked. If there's any room for improvement - or any risk of failure, and by failure I mean 'less than a hundred per cent perfect score' - it's in the need to calm down and really understand a question, instead of grabbing wildly at the surface of it. And you won't do that if you're panicking."
"But I'm so behind!" Hermione's voice rose, and then she bit her lip. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to shout, but... oh, I hate exams, I always get so nervous! I want to get everything perfect so badly, but I can't help getting more and more nervous, and then I'm sure I'll fail everything!" Her hands twisted together anxiously, badly crumpling the timetable. "I just wish it was all over."
"Hermione - Hermione, listen to me!" He heaved himself forwards, still rather stiffly, and seized both her hands in his, holding them apart and stroking the backs of them with his thumbs. "Hardly anybody ever does a perfect exam, not even Dumbledore: there are always momentary lapses, errors of concentration in any long piece of writing. But that's expected. No-one is going to think that you're a, a bad student if you don't score a hundred per cent on every single paper. And you don't need to. You already know what you need to know: this last term is just for refreshing your memory and polishing the details of your practical performance."
"But the NEWTs are so important!" Hermione clung to his hands, trying and failing to bring her voice down from a frightened squeak. "They affect our... our careers, and our futures, and everything, and what if I make some dreadful mistake and I... I fail Potions, or something? I'd never be able to face you again, after you've done so much to help, and I want you to be proud of me, and Mum and Dad too, of course, and...." She trailed off, as if that was too much even to hope for.
"You aren't going to fail Potions, unless you have some sort of total mental breakdown - and if you did, you would be allowed to re-sit. I would be - disappointed, if you didn't get your Special Merit, because it would mean that your marks did not do justice to your ability or to the effort which you have put in - not because I thought your ability or your diligence weren't worth good marks. I wouldn't rage at you or anything like that. Especially as a poor mark would be considered to reflect on Horace, not on me...." He coughed delicately.
"In any case you're not a - a machine for passing exams. The school aims to educate you to the best of your abilities, and your abilities are very high, but there's so much more to you than that. How could I not be proud of a, a brave loving girl who was willing to commit herself to a sour, ill-favoured cripple like me, knowing what will be involved and still tolerating my tantrums and traumas?"
He raised her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it, and then cleared his throat awkwardly, feeling himself blush. "And I'm sure your parents are already proud of you, and from what you tell me, they wouldn't understand enough about our world to know whether you'd done well in your exams or not."
"You're not ill-favoured, and you're much less sour than you were, now...." That distracted her from the panic, a little, and she leaned in to kiss him gently in return, although he had to stoop low over their joined hands to allow it. "And I love you, you know I do. And I want to make you proud of me because I do well, because I'm... I don't know, because I have some chance of being your intellectual equal, someday, even if I'm not now." She smiled wryly. "And my parents know the difference between a pass and a fail, believe me, no matter what letter codes they use. Being a prefect and passing my exams is really all they do understand about what I'm doing. They know I'm happy, though, and that's important."
"I'm glad - that you're happy, I mean." He gave her a rather whimsical smile, pleased to know himself included in her causes of happiness. "Intellect per se is something you either have or you haven't - and you have - and knowledge mostly happens with experience. Just cramming in facts to pass exams is mainly just good for passing exams. Outwith the exam itself you don't need to know all of the one hundred and seventeen uses of Viper's Bugloss off by heart - just know that they exist, and where to look them up. Even in Potions - the main thing you need to remember is the anomalies, the things that aren't always in the books - the unexpected interaction which turns an infusion into an explosion. Everything else will come with practice - so long as you remember the things that might prevent you from living long enough to get any. Practice, I mean.
"And besides - silly girl, I have so much in you to be proud of - if I have any right to be proud of achievements which belong to you and not to me - and if raw intellect were all I was interested in I could have had Albus for the asking years ago." There was a pause while they both thought about that one, and then shuddered in unison. "And your parents are going to have something else to think about - if we're going to go public about our, er, relationship before NEWTs."
"All the more reason to do well on my NEWTs." Hermione sighed, and then kissed his own knuckles lightly in return before disengaging her hands and starting to stack her colour-coded piles into one big one. "I don't want them thinking you've been interrupting my studying or anything. It's bad enough that they know Harry and Ron do it, but I want them to like you as much as possible." She paused, and smiled at him over a handful of pale-orange parchment. "And I am happy, when I'm not thinking about exams. There's so much to look forward to after Hogwarts, now."
Severus smiled back. "Remarkably, there is. I always used to dread the beginning of the new school year - it was Monday morning raised to the power of ten - but now, whether I teach or not, and whether the new intake are the usual bunch of unmitigated drooling halfwits or not, I'll have the fascination of watching your career unfold, and the pleasure of your company. The others', too, of course, but yours most of all."
"If I survive the NEWTs. If my heart doesn't just stop or something." Hermione sighed again, smoothing the timetable out as best she could. "But... yes. I'm looking forward to that, too. To being able to just... be together, and not worry about exams or people finding out or anything. And go on that holiday." She smiled at him. "We have a date with a rowing boat, don't we?"
"A nice, quiet, summery backwater, where we can drowse and drift...." His own answering smile slipped a little. "With Parkinson and Bulstrode and a legion of attack-hippogriffs hiding behind every bush and watching every blasted kiss, until such time as we manage to put a lid on Riddle and all his works, but it can't be helped. Perhaps we could Obliviate them of the juicier bits. Or cast Disillusionment on each other and then do it by feel: that might be amusing."
"We could always borrow Harry's Cloak: after all the guards are supposed to be watching to see if anyone approaches you, not what you do. You could leave a foot or something sticking out, to show you were still there. And it's quite nice, under there... it casts this sort of almost-shadow which could be rather romantic if I wasn't always under there with Harry and Ron." She turned her face up to him and he bent and kissed her solemnly on the nose. She gave a strand of his hair a gentle tweak. "I do like the idea of you dozing with your head on my lap again... and maybe we could read something that isn't a textbook, together."
"I rather like the idea of re-reading The Last Unicorn, now that I am in something approximating to my right mind - I'm sure I missed a lot of it before, and it seemed quite romantic, in rather a sad way. Or we could read Donne, and put some of his racier suggestions into practice: you already have a head-start on the 'hairy diadem'." He grinned at her half-playful, half-serious pout, and lay back down against the pillows. "But getting romantic under James Potter's invisibility cloak, that he used to stalk me and get me on my own at school - Merlin, I don't know if that's poetic justice or just creepy." He frowned. "It must be a remarkably good one, to still work so well after all those years - but I suppose he always was a swanky rich bastard."
"It's just the same as it's always been... smaller, of course. We used to be able to get all three of us under it easily. But it should do for two of us, if we're sitting down." Hermione smiled at him. "And I like the sound of both of those. It's nice to have something specific to look forward to... and if He hasn't been stopped, by then, we'll just have to do it again when he has been. I could certainly bear more than one spell of drifting about with you on a river."
"Perhaps in the summer, when I don't have to be at beck-and-call for the acne-infested hordes of Slytherin, we could take a house somewhere near a river - in Bath, perhaps, or the Derwent Valley. Then we could hire a boat whenever we wanted."
"That sounds wonderful. Perhaps I'll survive NEWTs after all, with that to look forward to." Hermione allowed herself to flop sideways on the bed, resting her head on the pillow. "Perhaps if I just don't bother sleeping until then. Would it bother you terribly if I used a wandlight to read by when I'm here with you?"
Severus tried to appear stern and teacherly, although it was difficult to manage when her nose was only inches from his, and he was afraid that he merely looked cross-eyed. "It won't bother me from the point of view of keeping me awake, but it will bother me very much if I think that you aren't sleeping. Staying up late to cram on the night before an exam is one thing: but if you skimp on sleep for more than a week your performance will start to decline, and your health with it."
"Sleep is for people who don't have exams." Hermione grinned at him. "Oh, all right. I'll sleep. But only because it makes my knees go all wobbly when you smoulder at me like that."
"Good girl." All that talk about drowsing in a boat had made his own eyelids feel like lead, but he made the effort to prop himself up on his elbow (the false one, he had to admit he was certainly getting better at wearing the thing for long periods) and gaze down at her, half amused and half serious. "You need to take a break from studying sometimes or your brain will overboil, like milk, and I have just the thing. You need to stay in practice with your combat training - one never knows when you might need it, especially given your predilection for wading in to assist some stray or other - and Millie Bulstrode is in need of a sparring partner. I promised her I'd ask you if you were up for a rematch."
When Albus attempted to be stern with Minerva about her concealing the news of Severus's romance, she laughed, tapped him on the chest with a rolled-up copy of the Prophet and said "It's not my fault if you're slow on the uptake, Dumbledore: you could have worked it out for yourself if you weren't beating for the other side."
"That was... considerably better, Potter." He had actually sensed the point of his attention sliding, and yet had been unable to prevent it, ending up watching an anodyne memory of a lesson at the boy's primary school, and a house martin flying repeatedly past the classroom window to a nest just out of sight, carrying tufts of horsehair the boy knew it had stolen from an armchair by an open window in the staff room. A vivid, memorable vignette, and completely uninformative, even as to the boy's character, except perhaps that he was easily distracted from study.
Potter pushed a flop of untidy hair back off his forehead. "I thought, you know, if I just shoved you out - I mean, not you-you, but somebody who was really trying to get into my head when I didn't want them to - that would look suspicious: it would let them know I was hiding something. So I thought about something that was real, but didn't connect to anything much."
"I'm glad to see you're finally beginning to get the idea." In truth, he was highly impressed, and also relieved: too-deep contact with Potter's mind made him uneasy, and he was glad to have been headed off from achieving it. He no longer had to fear to meet blazing scorn and hatred in Lily's grass-green eyes: instead, the awareness that the boy had an open link to Voldemort made the hairs on the back of his neck bristle, and he feared to brush against the outskirts of the same dark mind which had bound him in deathless, ceaseless agony and sent him back to Hogwarts as a mocking gift, a little over six months ago.
"Yeah, well," Harry muttered; "now that you're teaching Hermione as well, I can get her to explain -"
"You really should not be distracting H- Miss Granger with extra work that you could do for yourself."
"I just - understand things better if they're filtered through Hermione, OK?"
Severus tcch-ed irritably. "At least it should be a weight off her mind to know that you are that much closer to being able to prevent the Dark Lord from gaining access to your mind."
"Oh," Potter said with studied casualness; "breaking the contact wasn't what I had in mind."
Severus stiffened in alarm. "What do you - ?!"
Potter grinned at him like a very smug, be-spectacled young wolf. "I was planning to feed him false information: seeing that you can't do it any more."
"That's !!!... not a bad idea, actually...."
"I think it's a very good idea, you writing a paper about yourself," Luna said dreamily, folding back the covers for him to climb into bed, and then perching on the edge of the mattress next to him. "It makes sure that your thinking self is in command of the bits of you that were damaged, and that means you can fix yourself better quite well really."
"Erm - I wouldn't have put it quite like that, but essentially I believe you are correct." He gave her a quizzical look. "You're not going to attribute my... condition to some sort of supermagical entity?"
"Oh no, of course not." She smiled brightly. "Not in this room, or this bed. You should watch out for soul-leeches when you go out, but in here nothing like that can come near you past that" - she pointed at the ceiling, at the strands strung with driftwood and shell and delicate metal rods and shards of coloured glass, revolving and chiming faintly in the breeze from the loch - "and the beads I charmed for you." She drew them up gently from where they hung at the back of the headboard, and showed them to him, gleaming a deep rich cobalt blue in the lamplight. "I put everything I knew that would help into them, and I know quite a lot really."
"And some of it is even true" he replied, covering his embarrassment, and then winced: the last thing he wanted to do was offend or hurt her, but she only smiled back at him gravely and let the beads rattle back into shadow.
"More than you might think."
There came a light, familiar rapping at the door, and the amicable murmur of voices. Whoever was outside was acceptable to his faithful Slytherins: and he recognised the knock. "Come in!" he called happily, and Hermione slipped into the room with a warm, approving look for Luna, who smiled serenely in response and got up.
"I'll leave you two alone to be romantic," Luna said cheerfully, and wandered out.
"That was... quite tactful for Luna, actually," Hermione observed wryly, going over to sit on the edge of the bed and kiss him hello. "How are you?"
"It was, wasn't it? She can be alarmingly observant and incisive under all that flimflam, and terrifyingly blunt - I feel we got off lightly. And - I'm nervous, frankly. It's three days to Beltane, and I'm worried that you - that you might feel pressurized by my suggesting an actual date. There's still plenty of time for you to change your mind if you - if you're not sure. I mean - you can change your mind at any point, you know you can, but I know once we actually, um, started you'd insist on going ahead in order not to be seen to fail at something. But it - I want you to know it wouldn't be a failure on your part if you were to decide against it."
"Far from it... uhm, I'm actually looking forward to it quite a lot. If you wanted to put it off, I'd understand, but believe me I have no intention of doing so." She went a bit pink. "And I... er... have something for you. I wasn't going to show you, because it's really a bit... uhm... sentimental, and was certainly rather premature on my part, but I would like you to have it, since you seem to need reminding often how much I care for you...."
"Er... yes." Now almost entirely incoherent with nerves, she rummaged in her pocket. "It's... well, it was Valentine's Day, and you were still... but I sort of hoped we were going.... where we are, and I... uhm...." Fiery red and speechless with embarrassment, she offered him a small card, red with a gracefully-proportioned heart outlined in silver.
A small frown creased his brows and he gave her an odd look, but he took it from her gently, cupping it in the still-awkward, prosthetic hand so that he could open it with the other. As he did so, a carefully-pressed, preserved pansy slipped out and fell into his lap.
Inside, the same silver pen had written:
It was not deathless verse, exactly, but the obvious sincerity of the sentiment made him feel a little light-headed, and even more than by the words he was touched by the fact that she, unlike Potter, knew the Language of Flowers very well and had given him the symbol of the thing he had needed so very much at that time - and if he needed it less now, that was partly because she herself had given it to him. He picked up the flower, very gently, and looked at it - too overcome with sudden emotion to meet her eyes. "Heart's Ease," he said softly.
"You needed it so badly," Hermione replied equally softly. "And I wasn't sure I could give it to you, but I wanted to so much. And I knew it was far too soon for anything like that, so I made the Valentine and then hid it. I thought I could give it to you sometime when you were better, if things worked out. And now seemed like a good time, although I was almost too embarrassed to show it to you." She fiddled with the wide sleeve of her robe. "It just... it's very sentimental, I know, but that's what Valentine's Day is for."
"You did ease my heart, you and - and all the others, of course, but you most of all. Just the idea that somebody so - unsullied could still find me attractive was.... And it's not - sentimental. Not really. All right, the silver heart is maybe a little... but the words, you were writing about a genuine sentiment, a genuine kindness, not just - indulging in emotion out of a love of self-dramatization, which is what I understand sentimentality to be. You meant this - you've proved to me that you did." He forced himself to meet her eyes. "Thank you. You do ease my heart - every day. You ease it more than you know."
"I did mean it." She reached out tentatively to take his hand, careful not to squash the pansy as she did so. "And... well. Since you're as prone to self-doubt and fretting as I am, I thought... it might help, to have something you can take out and look at to remind yourself that I really do love you. In the last few days I think I've put every protective spell I've ever learned on that sonnet you gave me. I could probably drop most of Hogwarts on it and then set the pile on fire, and it would survive." She blushed a bit, and smiled at him. "This has, completely incidentally, given me a chance to take it back out and reread it about a dozen times. I've been a bit worried about Beltane too... that you'd change your mind, I mean, or decide that you'd made some sort of dreadful mistake...."
"I do worry about it," he said, frowning. "I worry that you are making a dreadful mistake, or that I'm going to do something stupid and ruin it for you - or get so nervous that I can't do it at all. Sometimes I think that as the older one here, as someone who is at least nominally in authority, I ought to be sensible on your behalf and decide, firmly, that you should look for somebody more suitable - but, selfish bastard that I am, I couldn't bear to, because I want you desperately, and the idea of making love to you makes me feel like a silly, hopeful teenager again. No offence meant."
"None taken." She poked him very gently in the stomach with a fingertip. "But you're being very silly. It's such a basically flawed concept - the whole 'No, no, you must find someone more worthy of you' thing, I mean. What girl, I ask you, who is in love with someone who comes out with that particular line of melodramatic tripe - don't look at me like that, it IS tripe - is actually going to say 'Oh, well, all right, if you put it that way' and start auditioning other men for the role of One True Love? Honestly?" She shook her head. "It sounds very nice in the dramatic epics, I'll concede, but it's hopelessly impractical. No, I'm afraid you're just going to have to get used to the idea of me being madly in love with you, because I'm not changing my mind. And as for ruining it for me... you won't. I know it's going to be awkward and a bit uncomfortable at first, for both of us - my youth and virgin state would guarantee that even without your recent history. But I'll be with you. That is, honestly, all that matters to me."
Severus placed the pressed flower back into the card and laid them both very carefully on the bedside table, well away from the water-jug, before turning back to her with a sudden smile. "You do make me feel young, and silly, and hopeful, do you know that? I would say 'You make me feel young again,' but I never did feel particularly young, when I was. And I know that by wizarding standards I hardly count as much older than you anyway, but the Muggle part of me still thinks that thirty-eight is nearly ancient, and yet here you are giving me the chance to do - first-night nerves, and Valentines, and writing love-poetry for a pretty girl, and kissing behind the teachers' backs - all the things I should have done when I was your age and never really had the chance at. I wanted Lily - wanted her desperately - but I never had the courage to tell her so: and she, well, she saw me as a brother." One she could bully and lead around on a string, he admitted in the privacy of his own heart, but it was still love, of a kind, and for a long time the only love he had ever had. "So there was never any actual romance, there, just - pointless yearning.
"Not that - well, I don't want to make myself sound too pathetic, I did get the occasional kiss, but only from the sort of girl who'd kiss anything with a pulse! It was decidedly unromantic - but nobody would have wanted to get romantic with the, the school outcast, and in any case Lucius had left me feeling so... grubby that I didn't expect anyone to anyway.
"But this is like - something in a dream. By the time you achieve the vast age of thirty-eight yourself, you will have heard many people looking back at their schooldays, at their first fumbling romances, and saying 'If only I'd known then what I know now' but I do know now, and you're giving me the chance to live my late teens over again without making the total arse of myself that I would undoubtedly have made when I really was eighteen. With any luck."
Hermione blushed happily. "I... thank you," she said, leaning over to kiss him softly. "I never had a chance to do a lot of those things either, not really, and I'm really enjoying doing them with you. It... actually, I don't mind not having a chance before, now. You were definitely worth waiting for." She paused, and grinned suddenly. "Although I think I might have felt a bit more confident if you were in your late teens," she admitted. "It's fairly easy to render teenage boys incoherent, which boosts a girl's confidence. You're more of a challenge as an adult... which I like, even if it's a bit nerve-wracking sometimes."
"I may be - and I trust that I am - more coherent than I was when I was your age, but I suspect I am easier to handle now than I was then. When I was eighteen I thought that scowling ferociously at everybody and communicating in grunts would make me seem mysterious and sophisticated - although in retrospect it probably just made me look constipated."
"Oh, dear, I am far gone," Hermione said with some amusement. "As annoying as I know I'd find that if someone else did it, imagining YOU as a teenager being all grumpy and uncommunicative in an attempt to seem sophisticated seems terribly sweet. I simply would have had to coax conversation out of you, possibly by the application of feminine guile and a parchment full of Arithmantic formulae waved under your nose."
"That would probably have done it," he agreed gravely, "but then I would have been infuriatingly smug and quelling and all-knowing. And you would have been equally opinionated, and then we would have had a fight. About Arithmancy, which would just confirm everyone else's opinion that we were a pair of hopeless geeks."
"And which might have resulted in me being overcome with passion and dragging you into a lip-lock right there," she teased. "You know how stimulating I find your intellect. Arithmancy, an intellectual argument, you smouldering all over the place while being utterly infuriating... my self-control could easily have been overcome."
"And I would have thought I'd died and gone to heaven, and turned into a stammering puddle of hormones. And then tried to retrieve my dignity by pretending to be some sort of budget Don Juan. Having the most terrifyingly intelligent girl in the school hanging on my arm would certainly have improved my social standing no end!"
"And finding a boyfriend of any description would have done the same for mine," she said fondly. "I'm sure you would have been utterly adorable, too, all bewildered as to why I fancied you and having to be kissed at great length at regular intervals to keep you convinced. Which would have been a dreadful struggle on my part, obviously, but my love is entirely selfless."
"Oh, entirely," he agreed. "You wouldn't have enjoyed it at all when I kissed you back like this...."
Afterwards, he sighed and leaned his head back against the headboard with its burden of beads. "It's a measure of how much good you've already done for my ego that I can joke about it. At the time, I really would have been absolutely certain, underneath the bluster, that you were only being kind, and that you couldn't possibly really enjoy being kissed by an ugly, dirty thing like me."
He turned his head and looked at her, troubled and serious. "If you'd managed to convince me, then I wouldn't have been so - so angry all the time. So bitter. I probably wouldn't have been so desperate for protection, for acceptance, for revenge as to join the bloody Death Eaters in the first place. None of - this would have happened. Whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing - that depends on how important you think my - contribution to the war effort has been. Albus insists that it has been paramount, but I am not convinced: I think he just says that to make me feel better. But - "
He turned away sharply and looked down, so that his hair hung about his face in the old, neurotic gesture. "It was me, Hermione," he said hoarsely. "I was the one who betrayed Harry's parents. I didn't know what I was doing - I overheard a snatch of a prophecy and I relayed it to my master, without knowing whom it referred to or how He would interpret it, and when I found out I was horrified. Lily - my Lils, my friend whom I had driven away by my own crass stupidity - and a man I owed my life to, however much I hated him; a child - it was mainly that that brought me back to Dumbledore's side, to try to put things right and save them, but thanks to Peter fucking Pettigrew I was too late anyway. But it was that - it was the abortive attempt to kill Harry which brought my - master down. If I hadn't - if I hadn't been so stupid, so venal, if I hadn't joined Him in the first place, if I had never conveyed the prophecy to Him, would we all now be living under the iron heel? Albus certainly thinks so - or claims to."
Hermione blinked, then pulled him into a tight hug, drawing his head down onto her shoulder and pressing her lips against his hair. "Oh, my love..." she whispered, her eyes filling. It was horrible, yes, but he must not think that anything would ever drive her away, and she wouldn't flinch even for an instant. "How horrible for you... to realize what had happened, to know it was your fault even though it was an accident...." She rocked him a little bit, kissing the top of his head again. "But you can't beat yourself up over what might have happened, we don't know what might have happened...."
"According to Albus I should congratulate myself, because Lily's sacrifice resulted in the so-called bloody Dark Lord being knocked off his perch for thirteen years, and enabled the weapon which Harry is. Supposedly. But I find it hard to see her death in that light." He made a choked, unhappy noise that was close to a sob. "I begged Him for her life, did you know that? - and He granted it to me. He would have spared her, if she'd stepped aside and let Him have the brat, but she wouldn't do it, and the fact that her sacrifice was voluntary, that He and I gave her a choice, was what gave her death so much fucking power. But it didn't make her loss any easier to bear, especially knowing that I - that it was my fault. I never knew whether she knew that it was I that gave her away, but if she did she must have thought that I - that I wanted the Mudblood killed."
"Shhh.... She can't have known, I'm sure of it. Sirius said he'd never even heard a rumour that you were a Death Eater, and if Lily had known that you were... were a member, surely she would have told Sirius?" She held him tight and rocked him comfortingly. "And of course you shouldn't congratulate yourself, what an insensitive thing to say! But you didn't know what was going to happen, and you did try to protect her, so you shouldn't blame yourself too much, either. A little, for the initial poor judgement, but what other people do isn't your fault." She rested her cheek against the top of his head, making little soothing noises. "And I, personally, have always had my doubts about that prophecy. It sounds to me like the self-fulfilling kind... if V-Voldemort hadn't found out, it probably wouldn't have come out at all. And then someone else might have tried to kill him, instead of all standing around with hopeful expressions waiting for a seventeen-year-old to pull out a miracle, as if he were King Arthur and Voldemort were a stone with a sword sticking out!"
"To be fair, Albus didn't actually use the word 'congratulate' - but that was the gist of it." He sighed and curled up against her, grateful for her easy closeness, her unreserved kindness, and yet still mortally embarrassed about finding it comforting. "And - He - it's best not to say the name, Hermione, it really is - He can't be killed. Not - not in the normal sense. You're right, it's a bloody farce, everyone standing around waiting for this - rather ordinary, excessively fallible teenage boy to Fulfil His Destiny - but there isn't a simple way of killing - Him. If there were, I would have knifed the bastard at the earliest opportunity, believe me. But He has to be killed seven times before it will stick, and six of them have to be done using special magic, and if He notices then you go back to Square One like a particularly horrible game of Snakes and Ladders."
"He can be killed, albeit not easily. Even if it's only temporarily, the way Harry did it the first time - destroy his body and he loses a large portion of his power, until he manages to get himself put together again. It might not be permanent, but it's better than having him walking around, isn't it?" Hermione had given this subject a lot of thought, and was pleased to finally have a chance to discuss it. "And then, of course, all of his power is magical. If we could find a way to neutralize his magical abilities... say a spell that cancels out magic within a certain radius, or a potion or poison that cuts you off from your magic - seriously, there must be SOMETHING like that around, surely there have been wizards who needed neutralizing before - then he could be contained or temporarily destroyed much more easily.
"And then there's the Horcruces. What I know about them I've gotten from Harry, so I'm not sure how accurate it is, but from what I understand he split his soul into seven pieces, six of which got hidden away and one of which is him, so to speak, and that bit has to stay in his body, or roaming around loose or whatever, is that how it works?"
"Roughly. The problem with driving His... core self out of the body is that then we know He's alive but we don't know where He is, and even if we then destroy the Horcruxes, He could just make more, and we wouldn't be able to stop Him because we wouldn't be able to trace Him. In a few years, we would be right back where we started. Albus and I have been over and over this and we really do need to find and destroy the Horcruxes before we go after His body - and He mustn't feel us doing it, because if He does He can just make more.
"And Horcruxes are old, deep magic. Even if we neutralized His magic the Horcruxes would still prevent Him from being killed, so we would simply - drive Him underground where we couldn't see Him. The Horcruxes really do have to go first."
"But he can't keep making more forever," Hermione pointed out, frowning. "I mean, he's already showing physical signs of what Harry says Professor Dumbledore called being 'maimed and incomplete'. How many more pieces can he break it into before he degenerates too far to even use magic properly? You can't do wizard magic without your soul, according to Jorgensen's The Lesser Magics of the Undead, although I'm not sure if he's a completely reliable source, because Hickleworthy's Dead But Not Gone contradicts him on the subject of the social and dietary habits of ghouls...."
"On the whole, I would regard Jorgensen as the more reliable source." He coughed gently and pushed himself upright to sit next to Hermione, having started to feel slightly ridiculous curled up like a cat in her lap while discussing military strategy.
"Part of the problem, you see, is that so little is known about Horcruxes - it's such Dark and such obscure magic - that we don't know for sure whether, when a Horcrux is destroyed... well, we don't know whether the soul-fragment it contained is destroyed with it, or whether it just flows back into the core soul - in which case, He could just split it off again and make another. We do know, or think we know, that He can't tell when a Horcrux is destroyed but He might just be too - spiritually insensitive to tell what is going on with His own soul. Albus thinks that this is because years of murder have progressively fractured and coarsened His soul, the more so with each fresh killing - I think it's because He's a sodding psychopath who is going progressively gaga."
"A sound assessment." He had pulled away with his "I feel silly" face on. Hermione was having none of that, and snuggled up to him to put her head on his shoulder instead. "The gaga part, I mean. Anyway, as I understand it, the part of him that's... him... has to remain free for the Horcruces to be any good, because they're all quiescent and bound to objects. Do you know what would happen if the part of his soul that's still in use was also bound to an object? That can be done, according to Fitzwilliam-Wickley's Arcanum Atrox...."
Soul-binding was decidedly Dark Magic. The Arcanum Atrox was in the Restricted Section, for damned good reason. She sincerely hoped she wasn't going to get into too much trouble for this.
Severus, who had been patting her arm absent-mindedly, paused. "And what a busy little bee we've been" his dry voice said softly. "There are reasons why access to certain books is - supposedly! - restricted to experienced adepts. There are some spells where the thought is the deed - where simply reading a bloody spell is enough to activate it, unless you know precisely what you are doing. There are some spells which read you back. But yes - binding his core soul to an object, if it could be done, ought to mean that as the Horcruxes were used up the soul-fragments would flow into the control-object, rather than into His mortal body, and destroying the object would then kill Him. And if Jorgensen is right, He wouldn't be able to do magic to defend himself, if none of His soul was in his body." He tapped his fingers thoughtfully against Hermione's arm. "Of course, He could still defend himself by non-magical means - but I doubt it would occur to him."
"Would he even still be moving around?" Hermione asked doubtfully. "Mightn't it put him in a coma or something? Of course, if he was still awake, he'd still have his Death Eaters and things.... or possibly not," she added thoughtfully. "I mean, when the boss gets stripped of all his magical power, that's about the time an ambitious underling starts getting ideas, right? Either way, I think if we could get the remains of his soul away from him, he'd probably be a lot less dangerous while we looked for the other Horcruces."
"Whether He remained functional or not.... As I understand it it would depend on whether His soul was still in communication with his mind. Victims who have been soul-sucked by Dementors...." He hesitated, shuddering at the memory. "They are left - empty, capable of understanding only the simplest direct commands, and that only if they already knew them before.... But the traditional idea of binding the soul to an object was usually to leave the person functional but immune to certain types of magical attack, so long as the attacker didn't know where the soul was stored. In that case, the soul is still - Well, whatever the Dementors do, whether they truly destroy the soul or simply sever it from the body, they certainly remove it from life. A bound soul, on the other hand, is definitely still alive and present, and would normally still be linked to its associated persona, unless definite steps were taken to isolate it.
"But yes: if - He - were to lose His ability to perform magic, I can think of at least eight members of the inner circle - which is to say, nearly all of them! - who would immediately decide that the time was ripe for a change of leadership."
"Maybe we should consider that, then," Hermione said hopefully, snuggling up closer. "It might even be useful... if we bound him into a mirror, for example. I read in Muggle Fairy Tales and Their Magical Origins that you can do that. Except it's definitely Dark Magic, and I think we'd need to have his body on the spot for that. But if we could work out how to do it, we could make the mirror show us where the other Horcruces are. And even if we can't get his soul out, or kill him... surely we could do something to distract him. Poison him, maybe, but with something subtle...." She paused. "Or something obvious. He's a wizard, and at least in his seventies... do you think he even knows what lead poisoning does to people? It would take a long time to kill him, even if we could get enough into him, but if he was delusional and having hallucinations and seizures, that would certainly distract him from ordering more attacks... and he wouldn't be able to detect it by checking for charms or hexes...."
"Hmm - but how would you deliver the poison? And remember, for a wizard, even a half-blood, seventy is not that old. He was at Hogwarts a few years ahead of Minerva - two years above Hagrid - which means he's a little over seventy, and Minerva isn't even going grey yet: she assures me that isn't dye. But I do like the idea of binding his soul, or part of it, into a mirror and then getting it to speak... I wonder if it could be done through Potter? Since he seems to have some sort of mental link."
"Maybe... and unlike you and the other teachers, I can usually get Harry to do something without explaining it to him in detail first." Hermione grinned suddenly. "So Himself wouldn't be able to tell what he was doing, because Harry knows I always explain things to him eventually so he doesn't insist on it right away." She touched his temple lightly. "And does that mean you're not going to be going grey for another forty years or so either? Because you'd look quite distinguished if you did.... still, I suppose it'll give me time to catch up."
"I've found a few grey hairs since - since last year, which is only to be expected, but I spelled them black again. But if you think they would look - distinguished.... But I don't like the idea of you 'catching up,' Hermione, I really don't. That would imply that you would age faster than me. But I'm three-quarters Muggle myself, and besides, as far as we've been able to ascertain it's mainly possession of wizarding powers which conveys longevity, not having wizard ancestry. Pure-bloods with no Squibs in their family, and half-bloods like Albus with a Muggle-born rather than a Muggle parent, do tend to live longest, which suggests a genetic aspect, that having inherited wizardry from both parents conveys more protection than getting it from only one or having it arise spontaneously: but the main difference is between wizard and non-wizard. You and I both have a good chance of living to comfortably over a hundred, if nothing kills us first."
"Well, narrowing the gap, then. When I'm a hundred, it'll be hardly worth noticing." She smiled, touching his temple again. "And I do think it would look distinguished... especially tied back, with a few discreet silver threads lighting up in the black... and I'll probably catch up on that, at least, since everyone in my family goes completely grey by fifty." She kissed his forehead. "And I hope we do have at least another sixty years. Or eighty. Eighty would be better. Do you think you could put up with my chatter for eighty years?"
"Provided you promise to go away and read a book or similar when I'm actually working on an academic paper - and assuming you can put up with my horrible temper for eighty years, of course. Could you, do you think?"
"I definitely think I could... and I'll go off and read a book while you're working if you'll do the same when I'm working. Unless we decide to work together... which I think I would enjoy quite a lot. Although I might have some problems with getting distracted at first." She grinned impishly. "You can be very... stimulating... when you're caught up in something that interests you."
Severus smiled back at her. "You must be right - whatever I did as a Death Eater, I must have expiated my sins - or why else would Fate send me such a perfect gift: an attractive girl who is turned on by geeks? Do you realize what a prize that makes you?"
"On the basis of the evidence until now, not much of one. But if you think I'm a prize, then I honestly don't care anymore what anyone else thinks." She smiled a bit wistfully. "Although if I'd known it was going to be this easy to convince you that I'm worthy of you, I wouldn't have been so nervous about it!"
"You are a pearl without price; a woman of fortitude, whose price is above rubies. Really. Do you have any idea how... flattering it is, to a, a sour, ill-tempered man with little status and less looks, even aside from my... injuries, to have the brightest witch of her generation think that she might not be good enough for him?"
"Do you have any idea how flattering it is to have one of the bravest, strongest, most brilliant... and very attractive, whether he believes it or not... men of our time think of me as a prize?" she countered seriously. "I couldn't give myself away to most boys my age, and if I were lucky most of the older men would be kind enough not to laugh at me. But you... I would have thought myself lucky if you'd only laughed. And you didn't, you actually think you're lucky to have someone who's a... a fallback, someone people notice is a girl only when every other available female has turned them down."
"You're going to have a long job to convince me that I might be - attractive, Hermione, when even my own family.... It's one of the things Severus means. It means the harsh one, the cut-off one, the plain one - really I think in the sense of 'unadorned,' but my Dads chose to interpret it as 'ugly', and he never let me forget it. As for you...."
He looked back at her, as serious as she was. "You must realize that Potter and Weasley don't see you as a girl in that... dateable sense because they've known you too well for too long: they see you as a sister. Especially since you do mother them, so that makes you their big sister, which is even more intimidating and asexual. And - I'm going to let you into a closely-guarded secret. Most boys of your own age - straight boys, that is - are terrified of girls. They'll go with the likes of Lavender Brown or Pansy Parkinson because a girl who flirts openly has already done half the work for them, but to approach somebody who seems unapproachable... much safer to pretend they don't care, in order not to be rejected, which they are sure in their heart of hearts that they will be.
"It's only boys with that extra bit of confidence, or that extra lack of brain.... You'll notice that Viktor Krum didn't have any qualms about asking you out because even though he's nearly as plain as I am, poor boy, he's famous and also rather older than you, so he felt more confident about it. Bastard-McLaggen felt confident about it because he's a brainless Quidditch-jock who thinks the whole world should fall down and worship him anyway... which, now I come to think about it, was probably how James bloody Potter got the girl. It wasn't just me who fancied Lily - half the school lusted after her from afar - but only Potter had the brass neck actually to say so, and she probably thought he was the only one who wanted her, and the best she could hope for.
"And you do know all this, you know, when you aren't - worn out from too much studying for NEWTs, and wound-up with nerves about - about Beltane. You were the one who told me that you could have Potter or Weasley for the asking, if you actually made a move on them, but for some unaccountable reason you preferred me. You're nearly as insecure about your own attractiveness as I am - but in three days' time, I'm going to have the chance to really prove to you how attractive I find you."
"That was... bluff, at least in part. There've been times when I could have had either, but... well. I actually asked Ron out, did you know that? In an awkward, mostly as friends sort of way, but I asked him if he wanted to go to Professor Slughorn's Christmas party with me. Not long after that, I walked into the common-room to find him sucking face with Lavender. And I do mean sucking, I don't think either of them are very good at it." She smiled ruefully. "I could probably have him now that she's run her course, but I don't really want him anymore. Even if I didn't have you, I'm not sure my pride could stand coming second to Lavender Brown... not to mention the fact that while the mothering has definitely put Harry and Neville off the idea of me being a girl, Ron seems to like the idea of being fussed over and looked after forever. As I told you once, I believe, I'm not too keen on that particular idea.
"As for you... I'll keep telling you until you believe it. Entirely aside from my fascination with your mind and your heart... both of which are wonderful... you can make my heart pound just by looking at me, and it may be a bit raspier now, but that purr can still make me feel decidedly wobbly in the knee regions. When you smile at me I have to fight the urge to blush and giggle like a twelve-year-old with a crush, and when you hold me, I feel warm and safe and blissfully happy. And in three days, I'm looking forward to proving that to you as well." She paused, and touched her fingertip gently to the tip of his nose. "And I love your nose," she added fondly. "It's so noble and Roman. Julius Caesar's is nothing in comparison."
"It certainly carries all before it - and enters the room substantially in advance of the rest of me. And I'm very glad you don't want him any more; I don't want to come second-best either, and whatever doubts I may have about my own appearance, personality and temperament, I'm prepared to concede that I am at least a much better kisser than Ronald Weasley - which I shall presently prove to you," he added, doing so.
"You could never come second to anyone," she told him, returning the kiss happily. "Not to me. You've ruined me for other men, you know... you're heroic, attractive, you appreciate me for both body and mind, and you can spell 'polytheistic'. And you know what it means. I could never go back to lesser men now."
Severus chuckled deep in his throat. "I can spell much harder words than that - if it will encourage you to kiss me."
She grinned at him, and leaned in to kiss him long and lingeringly. "As if I needed any encouragement to do that...."
And later, later as he drowsed in his bed beside her under a light cover, he could feel the smooth scoop of his own flank and the sharp jut of a hipbone, the flex of a broad, flat wrist and the soft pulling weight of his own genitals as the mattress shaped itself comfortably under him, a light breeze from the window brushing the hairs on his forearm and tracing the contours of the hard, scarred face he no long had to be ashamed of, because somebody by some miracle had found it attractive; and it no longer seemed such a terrible thing to be trapped in this body, even as maimed as it was.
In PoA, Remus says, 'I watched you cross the grounds and enter Hagrid's hut. Twenty minutes later, you left Hagrid, and set off back towards the castle. But you were now accompanied by somebody else. [cut] I couldn't believe my eyes, [cut] I thought the map must be malfunctioning. How could he be with you?' When the Trio arrived at Hagrid's hut there was nobody inside it except Hagrid, Peter Pettigrew, and Fang and Buckbeak who may or may not show up on the Map. You would think that Remus, watching them via the Map, would at once spot Peter's name in Hagrid's house - but he doesn't see Peter until he leaves with Ron. Ergo, for whatever reason, the Map can't see inside Hagrid's house.
A sonic screwdriver is a multi-purpose instrument used by the eponymous Doctor in several story-arcs of the notoriously scary British Dr Who science fiction TV series. It was used by the Doctor from 1968 to 1982, so if young Severus had the chance to see the series at all, he would have seen the sonic screwdriver.
"Batting for the other side" is a traditional British euphemism for homosexuality, but since Minerva is a witch she uses a Quidditch rather than a cricket metaphor.
The rather racy sixteenth century English metaphysical poet John Donne described his lover's hair (on her head!) as a "hairy diadem", contrasting it with the wired headdress which she was removing as she undressed.
Barring computer-outages the Beltane chapter should actually be ready to post on Beltane. Watch this space....
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