Hermione entwined her fingers in his and looked up in to that black gaze. Severus Snape would never be a cheerful soul but, surprisingly, those shards of icy obsidian had softened considerably in the short day they had been together. Especially as they looked at her now. She smiled up at him and he squeezed her hand and nodded. Turning on her heel, they Disapparated.
The bright moon was sliding toward the horizon but enough of it shone through the nearly leafless trees to flood the tiny clearing with soft bluish light. She, Ron and Harry had spent a few days here last year when they were hunting Horcruxes. It was deep in the Forest of Dean and, for the job at hand, it was secluded enough that it was unlikely anyone would spend any time here at all. They had passed up their usual early morning study in the library to collect Lethe Water, their inventory being depleted, and make their first attempt to conjure Mnemosyne Water.
Severus released her hand and rifled through his pockets, pulling out a very small gold cauldron. Lethe Water was very reactive and had to be collected in such a container because gold was the most chemically and magically inert material available. They suspected Mnemosyne Water would be need to be treated the same way. Most gold cauldrons were small since they were expensive and that was another reason Hermione's Shield charm had to be so accurate.
Severus paced off several yards, set the cauldron down on the leaf-littered ground and stepped back. He looked at her and nodded. Nervously, she aimed her wand toward the cauldron and cast her charm. She concentrated furiously, her brows drawing together, and focused on shaping the resulting Shield.
"Ready," she said, a moment later.
"Lethe Ektropi," Severus cast the spell.
Hermione watched as a small trickle of water spiraled down the sides of her Shield and funneled into the gold cauldron. She kept the Shield in place until Severus stepped closer and inspected the results.
"Very good," he said. Lowering her wand, the spell dissipated. Fishing a crystal flask from a robe pocket, he very carefully decanted the contents of the gold cauldron. He held it up for her to see, the clear liquid sparkling in the moonlight. "Are you ready to try the Mnemosyne Water?"
She nodded anxiously. They had discussed this part several times because the possibility of succeeding in this next endeavor was completely unknown. The same wand movement was used for Summoning both Lethe Water and Fiendfyre. Would it work the same for Summoning water from a previously unknown river in Hell? The spells were different. One simply used a rather extravagant description of the river of flame, the other seemed to request a portion of the river itself. If the latter worked, no harm no foul. If they had to formulate a new spell without any foundation to base it on, that would simply be guessing and they might never be able to access the Mnemosyne.
Hermione lifted her wand in preparation.
"Evanesco," he cleaned the cauldron and set it back down.
"Protego," she said, flicking her wand and shaping it with her mind.
"Mnemosyne Ektropi," Severus intoned and used the same wand movements as when he had called the Lethe Water.
A generous cascade of clear liquid splashed against her Shield and circled downward into the cauldron. She was so thrilled at their success that her focus almost wavered and she caught herself just in time. But something was different. There was a lot more water this time. The little cauldron wasn't going to hold it all. Apparently Severus noticed the same problem and he quickly cast an Engorgement charm at the cauldron. Since it was made of gold, Gamp's law held sway - the amount of the metal could not increase and so the walls of the cauldron thinned as he enlarged it to hold the extra water. If he made it too big, the cauldron could collapse and they would lose everything.
She quickly backed him up, extending her Shield charm to encase the cauldron, reinforcing the sides and bottom so that its precious contents were safe. Struggling somewhat with her focus, she hazarded a glance at Severus.
"Excellent, Miss Granger," he said, looking over at her. Evidently he realized that he had slipped back into their previous teacher - student relationship. "Hermione."
She smiled at him and he attempted to return the gesture. It came out as a lopsided smirk, but she was well pleased with his effort.
"Winky!" called Severus, his black robes shifting about him in a slight breeze. The little elf in her hot pink towel Disapparated to her master's side and looked up at him hopefully. "Bring me all the large, empty, crystal phials from the potions lab." Winky disappeared with a loud crack and he raised his wand.
He nodded to her and she cut off her Shield charm as he replaced it with one of his own - one that was more stable and tightly hugged the flimsy sides of the cauldron. He pulled his last phial out of his pocket just as Winky reappeared with an apronful of the same.
"If you would do the honors, Hermione?"
She snagged one and got to work. Dipping the container into the Mnemosyne water she carefully kept her fingers from getting wet, but the phial slipped from her hand and blubbed to the bottom of the cauldron. Consternation creased her brow and she pointed her wand at the offending object.
"Wingardium Leviosa," she chanted and the now filled phial gently rose from the captured liquid. She then cast a weak drying spell on the outside of the crystal and allowed the container to settle quietly to the ground. She stoppered it and reached for the next container. In such a manner Hermione was able to fill seven phials in fairly short order. The second to last phial required Severus's assistance with shrinking and shaping the cauldron so that the phial would fill. For the very last container, they switched places and Hermione decanted the cauldron's contents into the very tight Shield charm funnel Severus made that swirled the remainder of the Mnemosyne water into the phial, filling it nearly three quarters full.
Once corked, they were done, with surprisingly good luck.
"That was rather anti-climactic," Severus said flatly. "About time something worked the first time around."
"I think we were due," she agreed. "And we're just in time to get a quick bite of breakfast and then open the shop."
Hermione rubbed sleepy eyes as she padded across the hall to the potions lab. The modified potion for Kingsley and Minerva had to be stirred every seven hours until it matured. Severus had begun the brewing process Friday morning as soon as they had returned from Summoning the Mnemosyne Water and they had taken turns attending to the potion. Forty-two hours had passed and it was early, early Sunday morning.
She lifted the lid of the copper cauldron and, using a glass rod, began the twenty clock-wise stirs the potion required. According to Severus, if the Mnemosyne Water was going to work, this would be the last stirring session and the potion would be finished. Watching in anxious anticipation, she counted off each time the rod traversed the circumference of the gently steaming solution. As the full count of twenty approached, the leaden-colored potion lightened considerably. And, as she executed that last stir, the liquid bubbled suddenly and then turned a bright gold. She was so elated that she wanted to wake Severus and tell him about it. But he had given her sufficient instructions and, since he had been looking a bit haggard lately, she let him sleep and set about bottling the newly completed remedy.
They had discussed their strategy if the potion proved viable and who they would administer it to first - Minerva or Kingsley. The headmistress had received the tail end of the curse and in an area that wasn't so critical - her foot. Kingsley, on the other hand, had taken a substantial portion of the curse in the shoulder, a much more essential location. That meant Kingsley would need more of the potion than Minerva, therefore the Headmistress would make a better candidate to experiment on. If the potion didn't work as Severus anticipated, she would have less side effects to deal with, having ingested a smaller amount. Also, he thought that Minerva could handle any residual side effects better than Kingsley could. Her memory had shown a greater resilience than the Minister's had.
Hermione recalled that conversation with fondness now. Severus seemed to be getting more comfortable with their relationship every day. They had just locked up the shop Friday evening and he came and stood very close to her as she prepped the ingredients for the next day's "marketing" potion. When she was done he pulled her close and she laid her head on his chest and wrapped her arms around his waist as they both concluded that they would begin with Minerva, if the potion matured properly. And the kisses after they had made their decision were lovely. Warm, soft and . . .
She shook off her reverie, suddenly realizing that her industry had come to an abrupt halt. She picked up the next phial and, using the smallest ladle, filled and stoppered it, sealing the glass cork with a ring of melted wax. It was nearing three o'clock and she was so excited at their success she decided not to go back to bed. Carrying the six phials to the library, she lined them up on her desk and sat down to gaze at them with pride. In just a few hours she and Severus would be visiting Minerva and if their luck held, Kingsley shortly after that. It pleased her that their cure was the result of the tandem efforts of both Severus and herself and would be the salvation of their two friends. She pulled her planner from the desk and checked her N.E.W.T. agenda. Might as well catch up on the study schedule she had made for herself.
Snape stepped into the library and immediately sensed a presence there. He waved his hand and the sconces lit. Hermione was at her desk, head laid on an arm stretched out next to a book. In front of her, lined up in a tidy row, were phials of the modified potion. From the warm golden glow they gave off, it looked as if the brewing had been a success. He smiled as he watched her sleeping. They never would have had a chance at formulating this new potion if she hadn't walked into his shop that day. At the same time, neither would he be so confused at what was happening to him in regards to his apprentice.
He walked up behind her and bent low, pressing a gentle kiss against her cheek. He saw her eyes flutter open and she sat up, rubbing her temple.
"Let's go visit Minerva," he whispered against her ear and felt her nod. She stood and swept about half of the phials into a pocket in her robes. They walked together to the fireplace in the kitchen and Severus tossed the requisite Floo powder into the flames.
"Minerva?" He leaned forward into the emerald blaze. He waited several moments, thinking he heard footsteps.
"Severus?" The headmistress's voice sounded scratchy. "You best have a good reason for a Floo call at this hour."
"We think it a very good reason, Headmistress. May Hermione and I come through?"
"Certainly, you may. I'll run . . . hobble . . . and get my dressing gown and join you in a few minutes."
Snape watched Hermione as she stepped into the emerald flames. He liked the way she moved. Fluid and almost graceful, with an economy of movement that mirrored his own. In fact, the more he thought about her, which he found himself doing with increasing and nearly obsessive frequency, he found he liked everything about her. She seemed to reciprocate that interest, but try as he might, he could not fathom why.
He followed after her only a moment later, into the enchanted fire, and stepped out into the Headmistress' office. With Minerva off fetching a robe, they were alone. Hermione took his hand and drew close, pressing up against him. He looked down into her eyes, gold flecks sparking in her warm caramel irises. Since she was on tiptoe, he suspected she wanted a kiss. Here. Knowing Minerva would show up any second. Minerva obliged.
"So, Severus, what is this wonderful news you . . .," the tail end of the headmistress's sentence echoed through the room. Snape looked up. Minerva stopped in her tracks when she caught sight of them. Hermione stepped back and he opened his hand so she could untangle her fingers from his. She did not. Instead, she squeezed his hand tighter.
"And what precisely is the nature of this news?" Minerva glanced down at their joined hands. "I presumed that it had something to do with my condition, but I'm having second thoughts now." She smiled broadly at Severus, an unnerving glint in her eye. He gave Hermione's hand a squeeze, encouraging her to answer the headmistresses' question. It was her discovery, after all.
"We might have a cure, Minerva!" Her voice nearly strained with excitement. Now she released his hand and fished around in the pocket of her robes, pulling out a phial of the golden potion. She handed it to the headmistress, smiling broadly.
"Let's have you sit down over here," Snape said, indicating the sitting area on the opposite side of the room where she had sat the last time they were there. Minerva nodded and crossed the room, limping. After she was settled comfortably, he knelt beside her, brushing aside her dressing gown and gently pulling her foot forward. Hermione joined him as they examined the cursed appendage.
His last potion had not been able to completely hold the curse at bay, as he had expected, and the edges had crept forward, expanding the blackened area Minerva had dealt with since the day of Voldemort's demise. He fervently hoped that today would see the end of Tom Riddle's curse.
"Start with just a sip, Minerva," Snape instructed. "I would like to examine the result before you take too much. I'm not exactly certain how the adjustment might affect you."
Minerva nodded and brought the phial carefully to her lips. She trickled a bit of the potion into her mouth and swallowed. The effect was immediate. The blackened wound shrunk by half - the most significant result Snape had seen yet. He tossed a glance at Hermione - she was already scanning his face for a reaction. He raised his eyebrows and smiled at her. Then they both looked up at Minerva.
Snape studied the headmistress' eyes. He watched for the fog of forgetfulness that might veil her vision if they had misjudged the properties of the Mnemosyne River Water. But they remained bright and clear.
"How do you feel?" he asked her.
"Actually, I feel wonderful, Severus. Much better than when I took the other potions. My mind seems much clearer; not as befuddled as before."
"The fact that you remember my name is encouraging," he said. She smirked at him.
"Try a bit more, Minerva," Hermione encouraged and then glanced at Snape. He nodded his agreement and the headmistress took a bigger sip. The wound reacted in the same way as before. It's foul, black edges shrank considerably, leaving fresh pink skin as it retreated. It was more effective than he could have hoped for.
Minerva took another sip, and then another. They watched as the debilitating wound evaporated before their eyes. In a moment or two, it was gone. Snape stood and offered the headmistress his hand.
"Give it a try," he advised. She took his hand and stood. When she walked back toward her desk, her limp was gone. "And how does it feel?"
"Excellent, Severus, excellent. The numbness is gone and the ground feels firm beneath me." She took another turn about the room, walking swiftly and surely on her newly healed foot. "But will it come back? You said the curse injected a continuous stream of Fiendfyre into the wound."
"I believe the conduit to Hades that the curse opened up will close if enough of the potion is taken at one time. The Fiendfyre will be quenched at the spigot, so to speak, and the curse will collapse, preventing further contamination," he said.
Hermione strode forward and wrapped her arms around the headmistress. He heard a slight sniff.
"I'm so happy you are going to live. Hogwarts needs you so much."
Minerva returned the embrace warmly.
"There, there, my girl. I had complete confidence in Severus. And when you joined the team, I knew the solution would just come that much more quickly. It appears I was right. And then some," the headmistress eyed him over the top of Hermione's head.
"We'll give you another phial, just in case," he said. "If you see the slightest indication that it's coming back, ingest the entire amount in one go. We'll be back to check on you next week, but contact us immediately if you have any concerns." He headed toward the fireplace.
"One moment, Severus," Minerva said and held Hermione at arm's length. "I've culled a few books from the Hogwarts library that you might be interested in. Hermione? Would you go and fetch them for me? They should be on the table closest to Madame Pince's office."
Hermione looked over at him, her eyes narrowed. He got the distinct impression that she knew this was a ruse perpetrated by Minerva so that the headmistress could talk to him alone. He gave Hermione a smirk and a slight nod. She sighed, shook her head in exasperation and headed out of the office.
"The password is 'Russian Blue', Hermione."
"Yes, Headmistress," her fading voice echoed back up the stairwell. Minerva listened for a second or two and then flicked her wand toward the center of the room.
"Expecto Patronum!" she cast the charm and a large silvery tabby cat appeared. The caster and the cast stared at each other for a moment before the latter leapt across the room and out the window. Minerva met Snape's eye. "What? I do have some books for you. I just need Madam Pince to put them where I told Hermione they would be."
"You're incorrigible, Minerva," Snape said.
"You've taken my advice, I see," she said, a sly grin twitching at her lips.
"It seems, rather, that Hermione took your advice, despite not knowing what it was."
"This is all her doing? I'm not sure I believe that, Severus."
"Obviously, I haven't objected," Snape hesitated, the one question that had been weighing on his mind since the night Hermione first kissed him shoved its way forward. "I just don't understand why, Minerva."
"Why she seems . . . so enthralled with me. I cannot fathom why she would be interested in . . . someone like me." He crossed his arms and looked out one of the large windows across the room. Dawn was gently warming the underside of a few scattered clouds and they shone with a delicate pink light. It should be a beautiful day today. They had captured and incarcerated Crabbe and a good part of his gang. They had found a cure for Kingsley and Minerva's cursings. Why was he filled with such a sense of foreboding?
"Perhaps your confusion is due to the novelty of the experience," Minerva said softly. "I suspect this is the first time that someone . . . has actually loved you, Severus." She fell silent for a few moments and then softly cleared her throat. He continued watching the colors of the dawn slowly claim another cloud. "Do you feel the same way about her?"
Now he swung his head toward the headmistress, catching and holding her gaze.
"I'm no Legilimens, Severus, but I'd say you've got it bad."
"I'm as confused by my own emotions as I am about hers," he said, shaking his head. "I'm baffled that my feelings for Lily seem to have evaporated overnight. And it terrifies me, Minerva. I could mess this up so easily."
"Hermione's a very fortunate girl, having gained such regard of you. And I believe she knows that. It will not be an easy thing to put her off you, my dear," Minerva assured him. "Perhaps it's just the novelty that has you worried. This is a distinct departure from your previous life, Severus."
He nodded and his gaze sought the glowing dawn-streaked clouds. He could hear Hermione making her way back up the stairs.
Snape stepped into the Minister of Magic's fireplace and was swirled away in green flames. Landing in his own kitchen he didn't even have time to shake the ashes from his robes before Hermione's arms were about his waist.
"Oh, Severus! We did it! The potion worked for both of them!" With her bright smile shining up at him, he had a difficult time being practical.
"So it appears."
His arms couldn't resist wrapping around her in turn. She lifted up on tiptoe, for a kiss no doubt, and he couldn't resist that either. Lowering his head he gently pressed his lips to hers. She melted against him, responding luxuriously, generously, and murmuring something incomprehensible.
"Hmm?" he murmured back.
"Now we can start researching a cure for my parents," she repeated.
"No, I don't think so," he returned, quietly. Abruptly, she stepped back, staring at him. The confusion in her eyes quickly turned to hurt. He lifted an eyebrow.
"There is no need, Hermione," he said softly. "You've already solved that problem as well, my dear swot. If we substitute Mnemosyne Water for Lethe Water in the Forgetfulness potion we end up with . . ."
"The first ever Remembering potion!"
"Correct. And that only takes about fifty minutes to make," he said, relieved that the smile had returned to her lovely face. He would do anything to keep it there. "It will take some time to get your parents adjusted, settle their affairs and to bring them back here. A few days, perhaps."
"You'll come with me, won't you?"
He wouldn't be able to deny such a request with those warm brown eyes smiling at him; notwithstanding he required her presence to keep him alive. He mused to himself, concerned: did his dependency influence how he felt about her? No. At this moment, he would give his life to keep her happy.
"Of course. The shop is closed today. We can close it for a few more days until we can sort your parents out."
She was on tiptoe again and he bent down for another kiss.
"Thank you, Severus!" And then another. He needed to stay focused.
"Why don't you start the potion? I'll sort things out in the shop. We should be ready for a trip to Australia within the hour."
"I'll put the potion to brew and start packing," she said, excitement noticeable in her every movement. She darted out of the room and he heard the door to the potions lab slam shut.
Severus followed after but passed the lab to prep the shop for their absence. First, he adjusted the locking charm. The shop locked and unlocked itself automatically and he needed it to stay locked until they got back. Next he pulled parchment, ink well and quill from under the counter and scratched out a note: Closed for the week. ~ SS, and hung it under the closed sign already there. He didn't think it would take them a week and if they got back sooner they could reopen earlier than expected, no harm done.
Since they kept the premises neat and orderly at all times that was all he needed to do, except pack a few things for the trip. As he passed the counter he noticed the ever present potion cauldron at the end, ingredients laid out next to it to brew the modified Amortentia. The herbs would be fine where they were until he and Hermione returned.
With limbs as heavy as stone, he slowly walked up to where the cauldron sat. He placed his hands on the counter top to support himself, leaning heavily over the cauldron, staring down into its dark, empty depths. This would explain everything.
He wasn't sure how long he stood there, his mind blank, his heart shattering to pieces, but he roused himself when he heard her leave the lab. He couldn't move; he was barely able to breathe. He wanted time to stop in this moment so that he wouldn't have to tell her that he had been such an utter fool. And tell her that . . .
But Hermione found him, still leaning over the cauldron, seemingly fixed to this horrible spot.
"I'm all set!" she sounded so happy and came up beside him, standing excruciatingly close, and placing a hand gently on his arm. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and began.
"What are the general properties of . . ." he hesitated, ". . . ashwinder eggs?"
"A potion lesson? Now?"
"Ashwinder eggs would make a superb fixative except for its other side effects. It can increase the potency of a potion hundreds fold, depending on the other ingredients they are mixed with. Since that increase can be wildly unpredictable, ashwinder eggs aren't routinely used in most potions and usually only end up in Amortentia."
"Correct," he said, nodding sadly, still staring at the cauldron. "But used in Amortentia, it simply increases the efficacy of the base ingredients, however unpredictably. Ingredients already selected to induce the euphoria of love - powdered dragon heart string, nigella, dicentra and chocolate." He waved a hand at those precise ingredients beside the cauldron that Hermione had laid out the night before. Now he understood his nagging doubts about their relationship. His foolish mistake fully explained her inexplicable attraction to him.
"Miss Granger," he said quietly. "We are not in love with each other."
He felt her gentle hand desperately dig its fingers into his arm.
"No!" she whispered hoarsely. "That's not possible! Severus! We haven't ingested the potion!"
"We have been inhaling the fumes twelve hours a day, six days a week for nearly a month. I suspect that might be sufficient. In my defense, I ruled out constant and consistent exposure to the modified potion as being inadequate to cause myself to become infatuated with anyone because there would be no one else consistently here to fixate upon. Unfortunately, I did not revisit that conclusion when you became my apprentice. My only justification for that oversight was becoming distracted by everything else that was going on at the time. But it is an inexcusable lapse."
"Severus, I don't think my feelings for you have been artificially generated by potion fumes."
"Have you been having dreams about me?" he asked, remembering her behavior when Winky had been dumping her into his bed. His suspicions were confirmed when he looked down and saw her blush furiously. "Because I have not."
"Women are more susceptible to Amortentia-induced dreams," she said flatly, recited nearly word for word from Advanced Potion-Making.
She pressed her forehead to his arm, just above where her hand gripped him like a vise.
"It feels so real," she said and he heard a slight sniff. "I think I really do love you, Severus," she added, looking up at him, her eyes beginning to glisten wetly.
The emotion welling up inside him almost overpowered his rational mind. She loved him. That was a singular event in his life. And it was all false; all illusion. He wanted it to be true as well, but they had to face reality.
"Have you ever been under the influence of a love potion?" he asked softly. She shook her head. "Nor have I. How would we know the difference?"
"Our trip?" she suggested. "We'll spend a few days away from the shop, away from the Amortentia, and when we get back we won't make any more. We should be able to tell by then. And I bet we will still feel the same way about each other."
It was a sound, logical plan. Except he knew it wouldn't work. And he knew he couldn't watch the love she had for him fade from her eyes, her smile, her soul. It would crush him. It would kill him. Better that he die now, hoping she loved him, than live and watch that love decay into disgust. He stared down at the cauldron again and made his decision.
"A reasonable experiment," he agreed with her. "A few short days away from the potion and we should know. And the results would be unequivocal if we spent those days apart as well. I suggest you make the trip to Australia without me."
Her smile faltered slightly as he looked down at her once more, but the assurance in her eyes never wavered.
"I thought you would make us a Portkey. If you don't come with me, how do I get back?"
"Winky!" Snape called. The house elf appeared in an instant, clean pink towel almost glowing in the dim of the shop.
"You will transport Miss Granger to her parents' home in Australia and stay with her as long as she needs you. Obey her as you do me, until . . ." his gaze found the cauldron again, ". . . until she returns."
"But Master, if Miss leaves . . ."
"That's an order, Winky," Snape said sternly, interrupting the elf's attempt to protect him. Abashed, the little creature fell silent and hung her head. "Miss Granger, as soon as you collect a few items for your trip, Winky will take you to your parents."
He felt rather than saw the nod of her head and then she released his arm. A few moments later the hall door closed and he heard another soft sniff and a tug at his robe.
"Master," said the elf, her voice trembling. "Winky doesn't want to leave Master. Winky wants to take care of Master."
Snape didn't respond. In excruciating detail, he recalled how he felt when Lily died and all the long, dark years afterward. Then, he had something to look forward to. He had had a mission to complete, vengeance to seek. Now, he had nothing. Weariness permeated both his mind and his body. This was for the best.
"Thank you, Winky," he said finally. "But Miss Granger needs you more than I will."
And then Miss Granger was there, packed, with the newly finished potion, properly decanted and stoppered, grasped tightly in her hand. She pocketed the phial, set her bag down and walked over to him. Her gentle hand upon his made his heart sink even further into despair. But he wasn't about to let her know that. He tried to pull away but she wouldn't let him.
"Miss Granger, it would be best if we . . ."
"Hermione. And if our romance is going to be over by the time I get back, I want one more kiss with the man I love." She raised up on tiptoe and he knew he wanted the same thing. This last bit of affection would make the next few hours more bearable. After that, it wouldn't matter.
He took her into his arms and pressed his mouth against her soft, very willing lips. It was a long kiss, a sweetly forlorn kiss, and then they broke apart.
"I'll be back in a few days and you'll see - it's not the Amortentia," she whispered, breathless. She smiled up at him and he burned that last vision of her on his soul. Then a step back, picking up her bag, taking Winky's hand; and they were gone.
"Good-bye," he whispered to thin air. "Hermione."