"Mr. Thorton love Margaret! Why, Margaret would never think of him, I'm sure! Such a thing has never entered her head."
"Entering her heart would do."
Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South
It had been the worst day, Severus mused. Brawling students to deal with - from three different houses at three different times, a meeting with the board of Governors gone wrong, the staff meeting not much better, a couple of irate parents, a new batch of parchments that nearly obscured his desk, oh and to top it off, Albus bloody Dumbledore, no less meddlesome as a portrait than in life, decided to throw into mix by making *hints* about Miss Granger, the very chit who, within the same week she'd laid waste to his barriers by declaring, 'I care about you,' after defending him so fiercely, put lie to it all by acting as if she had outgrown the friendship she'd offered him, just as Lily had once done.
Upon later reflection, his sour mood over that last had probably contributed to more than half the bad outcomes of the day...and that wasn't even counting the last, worst one. In fact, things had been going astoundingly well until she had progressed from worming her way uncomfortably close to leaving him bereft with increasing frequency. The more he reflected on what he'd allowed her to do to him, the angrier he got. He'd been pacing his office in angry agitation when the very subject that angry agitation came barreling into his office with an obnoxiously bright face. And that had been it…the flipping of the switch.
It wasn't until Severus drank himself stupid, passed out cold and woke with his head pounding and his shields lowered that he really registered the expressions that had passed across Hermione's face and the emotional impact of what had happened hit him. He sat with his head in his hands and for the second time in his life, cursed his temper. The kicker this time lay not only in the error he had made while in a fit of temper, but in Hermione's response. Whereas Lily's response in essence had been, 'Fine then, I don't really condone who you are anyway, I'll brush you off shall I?' Hermione's had been more, 'Are you sure that's what you really want? Okay, I'll oblige you even if it hurts me.'
And she kept on obliging him. The problem was he didn't really want her to.
At the point she'd burst in on him, Severus had almost convinced himself that he'd rather her just leave him well enough alone than to be the subject of her wavering attention - and he had been entirely wrong. He knew that now. Much good that realization did him.
What confused him was that Hermione's response was at odds with the way she'd been avoiding him. Was it because, as her response suggested, she still valued him and his rejection hurt her, or was it as the previous weeks suggested, she was done with him but didn't want to face the final music? What were her intentions? It was totally unclear to him and it made him waver.
Even if it turned out she had been done with him but didn't know how to tell him that she'd moved on, she had saved his life and been enough of a friend that he felt bad for the extremity of his reaction. The idea that she had remained his good friend until he'd nailed the lid on the coffin made him feel awful. He was compelled to apologize, but she was making it impossible for him to do so.
Severus sought Hermione out, waited in places he thought it likely she would be, and even stalked the halls at odd times with hopes of catching her out...to no avail. If he'd thought she was avoiding him before, she was showing him the difference now. He could have forced his hand by calling her from class or on one of the rare occasions she came to the Great Hall, ordered a house elf to transport her, or even forced his way into her room...but his confusion and his position stayed his hand from drastic measures. Also, he knew she had a perfectly justifiable reason to avoid him if she wished to.
The few times he caught sight of her, she looked calm enough, if off. Harry assured him that he was keeping an eye on her and she was going to classes and doing her work. Severus waited for her sulk to end, waited for an opening so that he could approach her. And waited, and waited...
Severus saw Harry - they talked. He saw Ron - they played chess. He saw George - they consulted on joke shop products. He even saw Kingsley, with whom he had the most honest discussion on the problem at hand. There wasn't anything Shacklebolt could do, but he was apprised of the situation, and sympathetic...which made Severus feel pathetic. Severus did not see Hermione - except a few times, from a distance. He was beginning to suspect something worse than a sulk.
A week in, his fears and his worries were substantiated when Harry came to his office and plopped in a chair.
"We've not talked about exactly what happened...but it was probably one of two things. I think I need to figure out which one," Harry said seriously.
Severus asked, "What do you know?"
Harry looked at him, deliberating something. "It's bad - worse than I thought. She's not just hurt, she's…it's like she's walking dead. Said she wasn't even mad, and that's unusual for her...it's why she usually acts like this...it's usually what keeps her going. Something is wrong...I've never seen her like this...not even after..." He rested his mouth on his fingers for a moment. "What happened that night? She came here, didn't she? She must have. What did she say?"
"Yes" Severus finally decided to answer. "After weeks of giving every signal of finding my presence...distasteful, she came bounding in at the end of a rather disastrous day and completed the disaster. If I recall correctly, she enthused, 'Severus, I think I've figured it out!' It was the only thing she said before or after I lost my temper."
"She actually did it?" Harry asked, eyes alight. When Severus looked on, uncomprehending, Harry continued, "Did you ever see the brown leather journal she had...did she have it with her that night? I haven't been able to find it, and she never has it with her anymore."
Curious, Severus thought back to that night, and a memory that had been fogged over in anger and then drink rose to greet him. "She threw something in the bin by the door just before she left. It fits the description," Severus answered.
Harry's eyes had grown huge. "She threw it away!?" He pinched his forehead in his hand and swore. And then swore again. Severus was forestalled asking what Hermione had done and what the journal had to do with it when Harry looked up with anger in his eyes and said, "You must have been a horrible git."
Severus worked to quell his own anger and finally nodded in confession. "Given her behavior of the weeks previous I'm surprised she took it so badly."
Harry sighed and shook his head. "I know. It wasn't what you thought though...on two counts. And one of them had to do with that journal. I take it you didn't fish it out of the bin, and the house elves took it out?"
Severus nodded again. Harry immediately called for his house elf and set him the task of tracking down the as yet still mysterious journal.
About that time, Severus' connection to the school wards alerted him that someone had passed through the boundary and left the school. Severus double checked his schedule. None of the staff or 8th years had alerted him of plans to leave this evening. Perhaps one of them had forgotten, but he probably wasn't that lucky. He began to excuse himself to go check on the situation when Harry answered a fire signal and Ronald stepped through the fireplace.
"Hermione's left Hogwarts," he said before he was two steps into the room.
Harry and Severus went over to consult the infamous map which had frequently been their only means of finding Hermione and keeping an eye on her. But now?
"Think she'll come back?" Ron asked.
None of them answered save with looks of concern.
Hermione was technically allowed to go, all of the 8th years were. Ron left occasionally to work with George. Harry sometimes left to visit his godson. They both left with Kingsley from time to time. Leaving wasn't the problem - not informing Head of House or Headmaster beforehand was.
It wasn't like Hermione to not follow the rules…unless she had a very good reason not to. Her infraction was mitigated by Severus knowing that he was the 'reason not to' in this instance, and that Hermione was, at present, not acting her usual self. Hadn't the staff mentioned that she wasn't giving her usual 150%? Severus had tried to placate himself into thinking Hermione was merely off her game temporarily and would come around, but evidence was increasing that indicated very much otherwise. He sent a patronus off to Kingsley.
They waited in his office for hours. Severus' worry rose steadily like an oncoming tide. If he could, he would take it all back and accept whatever limitations or flights of whimsy Hermione imposed on their relationship.
When worry crested the banks, panic began to turn into anger.
"I'm going to wring her neck when she comes back," Severus growled. He was being optimistic that he would have the opportunity. "She's never to leave the castle again, even if she does tell someone beforehand!"
"I wouldn't," said Harry tiredly. "I'm pretty sure she left because I cornered her and asked questions."
"What'd you ask her?" Ron queried.
"What she was doing...said she was keeping afloat and keeping a promise," Harry answered. "Asked her what if keeping her promise wasn't necessary because you wanted to apologize," Harry spoke now to Severus. "Said give it some time. Said she wasn't mad. Just too lost to deal, I think."
"What promise?" Severus asked.
"That she'd never ask you for more than you wanted to give."
Severus felt sick. It must have shown.
Eventually, Hermione returned. They alerted Kingsley and went to bed.
It happened several other times. They kept a close eye on her with the map, portraits, house elves and the invisibility cloak. After Hermione's second jaunt out of the castle, Severus went to the spot she had shown him in the summer. It bore signs of a recent warming charm. He was pacified that at least she was relatively safe in her tree when she went there. He felt better knowing where she was going at least part of the time. But Harry was right, something was definitely wrong. Hermione's demeanor was cold and her eyes were lifeless. She was also tensed for avoidance and flight with the barest hints of encroachment. So they watched but didn't encroach. Christmas break would start next week and they planned on intervening at Grimmauld Place where she could not hide so easily.
When Kreacher found the journal and Harry left it on his desk to read, Severus scrutinized it with wonder. Only someone with superb research skills and extensive knowledge of arithrimancy, ancient runes, transfiguration, charms, herbology, Muggle science, AND potions could have come up with what she had done. It was brilliant, and she hadn't even submitted it toward her N.E.W.T. level final projects, even though it would satisfy the requirement in no less than six of her classes. Hermione had been busy researching a cure...just for him. No one had ever done half so much. And when she'd figured it out and come to him, he had...rejected her and told her to go away. What had he done? Severus put his head in his hands and mourned.
He was now doubly determined to beg Hermione's forgiveness, groveling if he had to, and planned to do so in the morning before the students boarded the train, if he could catch her, or later at Grimmauld if she avoided him in the morning. Only she left the school late that night...with her trunks...and she didn't show up at Grimmauld Place. The hope that she had gone to Australia to see her parents over Christmas was dashed when they contacted Kingsley. Neither had she been to her tree when Severus checked.
Severus submitted her journal to the pertinent staff who had stayed at Hogwarts for Christmas and holed himself up in his office, hoping desperately that Hermione wasn't lost to him forever, wishing every minute that she would walk through his fireplace or that at least a message would come. He remembered his time with her and wondered why he hadn't sought her honesty, hadn't fought to keep all that he could. He knew why. 'You're a bloody coward, Severus Snape,' he told himself.
A message did come three days later, but it only made him more frantic. Kingsley showed up early in the morning and plopped a newspaper on his desk. The headline read: 'Has Hermione Granger Declared a New War?' The picture on the front page showed Fenrir Greyback trussed in ropes within an inch of his life, lying on the floor of the Ministry Atrium. A note with large letters was pinned to him.
"If you don't want to create more like him, reverse the legislation that persecutes his kind.
If you find him a pleasant addition to society, by all means, carry on.
The article was straight forward, for a Rita Skeeter article, excepting perhaps the headline. If he hadn't been so beside himself with worry, Severus would have smirked.
Kingsley started explaining as soon as Severus looked up at him. "He attacked her. Evidence is he's been tracking her and took advantage of the first opportunity. He scored her." Kingsley held up his hand and hastily explained when Severus bolted from his chair, "Scratched her on the side and back…evidence left under his nails and this" Kingsley held up a vial full of memory. "He didn't bite her as far as we can tell."
As Severus retrieved the Penseive from the cabinet, Kingsley continued. "She was marvelous, but I can see why you've all been concerned - she never looked afraid or like it registered much at all. Bested him, bound him, brought him to the Ministry, put his wand on the welcome desk, summoned magic-binding cuffs from the Aurors' office – which left holes in two doors – pinned a note to him, left her memories in a vial, and stood guard over him until the first person showed up at the Ministry – then took off." He pointed to the note. "Remus would've been proud," he smirked.
"Where is she?" Severus asked as he poured the memory into the stone basin.
"Left by floo to the Leaky Cauldron then apparated away. She's gone to ground. Haven't been able to track her down yet," Kingsley said. Worry clouded his voice.
"She's quite adept at that after last year," Severus said and then dived into the memory.
Shacklebolt had been right: She was marvelous, fearless…and it was all wrong. She was devoid of so much more that fear. The cold of her absolute occlumency shields was palpable even in the memory.
"Do you think you can find her, my friend? Bring her back?" Kingsley asked.
Severus nodded. "I won't give up until I do."