"You're looking well, Severus," Minerva McGonagall said and Snape saw a puzzled look creep into her eyes as she watched Miss Granger close the door to her office. "You're looking exceptionally well, actually, considering how emaciated you appeared just last week."
"Winky is an excellent cook, Minerva, I thank you for transferring her ownership to me," he said. Something was up with the headmistress. He sat down in the indicated chair as casually as he could manage, crossing his legs and forcing himself to relax. He disliked when she got personal.
"You've had Winky for months. The only change in your life in the past week has been the addition of our lovely Hermione."
Our lovely Hermione? Snape frowned. Having worked with Minerva for over a decade and a half, he knew when she was promoting an agenda.
"Miss Granger has been of significant assistance to me this past week," he replied simply, neutrally, any elaboration would prompt questions he didn't want to answer. He held Minerva's gaze, daring her to lead the conversation where he thought she might be heading.
"Severus, you are still a young man."
"Time isn't the only thing that ages a person," he said.
"I believe you are right about that. The war forced many young witches and wizards to grow up sooner than they should have," she said and nodded her head toward the door Miss Granger had exited. He shook his head.
"Minerva . . ."
"You know, I've always worried about Hermione finding a proper match. I've wondered why she wasn't sorted Ravenclaw. And I've wondered the same about you since your first day in my Transfiguration class." She held her hand up when he went to interrupt. "I was surprised when she took up with Potter and Weasley, but it turned out fortuitous for the wizarding world that she did. Intellectually, neither of them are on an equal footing with Hermione Granger. In my years of helping raise generation after generation of witches and wizards, that seems to be the critical factor in making a happy match - intellectual equivalence. Hermione has no peer in her generation. Neither do you."
"I'm twenty years older than Miss Granger. She could have no possible interest in me."
"That would be her choice, not yours," Minerva said, smiling broadly. "From your comment, I presume you would not mind a wife twenty years younger?" Snape threw her his nastiest look.
"I was her teacher, I am now her mentor; even the thought would be inappropriate," he said coldly.
"That's why I bring it up, Severus, because it would never occur to you to consider it - precisely for that reason. And you know, although apprenticeships are rare now, in the past there were many times in our history where mentors married their apprentices."
"There are other barriers, Minerva, and one in particular, that would . . ."
"Your love for Lily Evans?" she interrupted. Snape was taken aback. But not because Minerva had the temerity to confront him about Lily. He was shocked that he himself had not thought to offer his feelings for Lily as a reason to counter her argument. That oversight stunned him. When he remained silent, she continued.
"Given the history of my own love life, I can't presume to counsel you on yours, but I would like you to consider one thing. I suspect that with the resolution of your mission to defeat Voldemort that your feelings for Lily will have resolved themselves as well." She looked down at her hands and then rubbed them uneasily together. "Just something to think about."
Snape was still so dazed at his lapse that he couldn't think of anything to say, let alone protest at Minerva's suggestion. She looked back up at him and smiled.
"And there was another bug I wanted to put into your ear," she said. "Whatever the outcome of my condition, at some point my successor will have to be appointed." Her eyes flicked to the portrait of a sleeping Dumbledore above her desk. "I think you should be the next headmaster of Hogwarts."
"My first tenure was not a colossal success, if you recall."
"Knowing now what it could have been, Severus, I have to say it was a tremendous success. Hogwarts, and the wizarding world in general, would benefit immensely to have a Slytherin headmaster that fought against Voldemort. You would be a phenomenal example to Slytherin house and could bring about a unity between the students of all the houses," she emphasized, but then hesitated. "And if you and Hermione happened to get together, that would be an unprecedented example for every student passing through this school.
"You have done so much for our world," Minerva continued. "You deserve a bit of happiness if you can find it." That look settled into the creases of her face. That look, Snape knew, meant she was feeling ashamed, once again, for believing him a traitor and a murderer in the fight against Voldemort.
"I thank you for your concern and your advice, Minerva, but I think I know where this is coming from," Snape said. "You are still feeling guilty about chasing me from Hogwarts last May."
"Well, no. I mean, yes, I still feel badly that I attacked you. I should have noticed that you weren't reciprocating, only defending yourself - not the actions of a genuine Death Eater. It's because of me that you were bitten by that evil snake."
Snape was glad that no one else but Healer Pye knew about his condition. It would devastate Minerva to know the full results of her actions that day. But all that might come out at his death anyway. He didn't want her to blame herself.
"He would have attempted to kill me whether I was in the castle or not. I actually owe you for having my body collected so quickly after Voldemort's defeat. A few more hours and I would have been dead. As far as I'm concerned we are even."
"I still feel ashamed at how easily I accepted that you betrayed us."
"That just means I did my job well, doesn't it?"
"Extremely well. However, my guilt isn't motivating me at the moment. I believe you the best candidate to take my place. And with my condition, Hogwarts might need to replace me sooner rather than later."
"Then perhaps I should join Miss Granger in the library and see if we can't conjure up a cure?" He stood, again, offered his hand in assistance to help her up, but she waved him off.
"She has a profound respect for you, you know, Miss Granger does," Minerva said. "As do we all. You'd have no problem garnering votes from Hogwarts' board of governors. Please keep both of those thoughts in mind, Severus. I'll see the two of you at lunch."
Nodding, he set that week's potion on her desk and left the office, making his way down the steps to the hall. Had Lily, and his love for her, somehow slipped away from his heart?
Hermione Apparated to a back alley in Muggle London that she had never used before. It was four o'clock and she was determined to enjoy her five hours off to the fullest extent. Seeing as how it was a gloriously beautiful fall day, and warm for the season, she had plotted a path to the pub that would take about half an hour to traverse. Having sat for most of the day in the Hogwarts library, she felt the need to stretch her legs. She headed down the alleyway.
After meeting with the headmistress, they had hit the remaining stacks that Professor Snape had not yet been able to check for information about Fiendfyre. Excepting a brief lunch break, taken in the headmistress' office, they had spent a solid nine hours in the library. Around three-thirty they had finished checking the books on the last shelf and then returned to the apothecary. Unfortunately, no new information had been uncovered. In fact, none of the books had even mentioned Fiendfyre.
After finding out that Minerva and Kingsley Shacklebolt were slowly dying from the same curse that would have taken Dumbledore, Hermione's mind was in overdrive. Although she had been fascinated about her topic when Professor Snape had assigned her to research Fiendfyre, now there was a devastating urgency to find a solution so that the lives of two Order members, her comrades-in-arms, her friends, could be saved.
But she needed to take some time to relax and let go of the problem; give her subconscious an opportunity to make some connections on its own, like Professor Snape had suggested. Earlier in the week she had sent Harry and Ron a message by Patronus to meet her at this particular pub at four-thirty. A leisurely stroll to her anticipated dinner appointment would allow her to disconnect her brain and perhaps get the creative juices stirring in the background.
She looked both ways and then stepped from the alley, merging with the many Muggles also out for a Sunday stroll through London. Since her letter from Hogwarts had arrived when she was eleven, she had never revisited the London she had loved as a child. With each step her expectation grew, excited to see the building that had been one of her favorites. After a short block she crossed the street, strode down the tree-lined walk and there it was.
The British Museum had nourished her imagination ever since she was in fourth grade and Miss Smythe had arranged a field trip for her class. Its stunning architecture had her binging on Greek Revival for months afterward, consuming everything in school and public library that she could get her hands on. Up until the green-inked letter from Professor McGonagall, Minerva - she reminded herself, had arrived by owl, she had wanted to become an architect. She had even compiled all her notes into a carefully organized book on the subject which she still had, somewhere amongst all the others she hadn't yet had a chance to shelve in her quarters.
She took a quick, reminiscent turn about the quadrangle in front of the museum, admiring the columns and capstones, and then resumed her course to the pub. Not only was she anxious to see Harry and Ron, she was getting a bit hungry as well.
A few blocks later and she could pick out Ron's red hair from the passers-by in front of the eatery, and there was Harry at his shoulder. She quickened her pace. Ron smiled at her and was the first to hug, a big comfy bear hug. Harry's was one-armed, around her shoulders, a look of concern on his face.
"Glad to see you're okay," he whispered in her ear. "We have some serious issues to discuss." They entered and Harry quickly led them to a quiet table at the back. She glanced at Ron and his smile was gone, replaced by a worried frown, similar to Harry's. Anxiety played with her tummy, her hunger quelled for the moment. The boys sat down and she followed suit, waiting for Harry to relay his concerns.
"Has there been any unusual activity at Snape's apothecary this past week?" he queried. Despite being in a Muggle pub, he kept his voice low. It was going to be interesting to find out what she would be able to say and what she would have to try and communicate with gestures. Or even if that would work.
"I haven't been there long enough to discern what is unusual and what is not. You will need to be more specific." she replied carefully and was pleased when both sentences came without a problem.
"Have you seen any former Death Eaters about the place?" he clarified. She tried to say yes, but nothing came out. Now to test her theory. She nodded - and to no ill effect. Success produced a huge grin. Harry seemed puzzled over her very pleased expression.
"Charades?" she said. Or would it be more like . . . "Twenty Questions?"
"Oi, what?" Ron interjected. Harry glanced at him.
"Muggle games," he said and frowned at her, apparently thinking. "You can't talk?"
"I can't talk about anything related to . . . to . . ." the words were gone. Snape had told Jugson that she couldn't say a word about anything she overheard. The contract was holding.
"To what you hear?" Harry queried, apparently catching on, as she had hoped. She nodded. "To what you see?" She tried to say Winky has a nest in the kitchen , but to no avail and nodded again.
"So I can ask you yes or no questions?"
"Well this could get confusing," Harry mused. Just then a waiter came up to take their order. Harry waved him away with "Three specials, please."
"Four," Ron corrected. Both Hermione and Harry turned to look at him. "What? I skipped lunch. I'm hungry."
"So are you in on this too?" Hermione asked Ron. He shrugged.
"A bit," he said. "Can't do too much, working at the shop all day."
"So Death Eaters are coming to visit Snape. Why?"
Hermione pursed her lips and frowned at him. Hadn't he just figured out he had to ask yes or no questions?
"Oh, yeah." He rubbed his jaw. "Okay. Does Snape want something from these visitors?" She hesitated. Professor Snape seemed to want something from Jugson, but he didn't ask anything from Rowle. However, she had eavesdropped as he Imperioed Rowle. Why do that if he didn't want something from the blond Death Eater? She nodded.
"Is he trying to find these Death Eaters?"
She didn't know if he was or not. She shrugged.
"Are the Death Eaters trying to find him?"
Rowle was looking for someone when he came into the shop, but he was angry when he found out it was Professor Snape. She shrugged again and then nodded. Did that come off as maybe so? This wasn't working so well. Hm. Maybe . . .
As covertly as she could, she slipped her wand from her purse, under the table, and conjured a piece of paper and pen. She tried to write the word Portkey. As expected, only scribbles came out. She then tried pictures: an old boot, as manky as she could make it; a fair attempt at the Triwizard Cup; a kettle, a hairbrush. With each picture she looked up at a frowning Harry.
Hermione nodded and smiled at him.
"Snape made a Portkey?"
Well, she hadn't actually seen him make one yet. She'd only heard him promise one to Jugson and tell Rowle that he could make Portkeys for any Death Eater that wanted out of the country. But how to relate such fine details to Harry? And how to tell him that Rowle was Imperioed? She stared blankly at him instead. She could almost see the wheels trying to turn in his head.
"Rephrase the question?"
"Have you seen Snape make a Portkey?"
She shook her head. He studied her face for a few more moments and then tried again.
"Is he saying he'll make Portkeys for Death Eaters?"
She nodded vigorously.
"Harry, didn't you tell me that Death Eaters are trapped inside England? That some kind of barrier was set up that wouldn't let anyone with a Dark Mark out of the country?" Ron asked.
Hermione nodded her head again and pointed at her other best pal.
"Yeah," Harry said flatly. "And it looks like Snape is helping his Death Eater comrades evade our attempts to catch them. Portkeys . . ." he muttered, his brow furrowed in thought.
The waiter arrived with their meal, a lovely pot roast with potatoes, gravy and vegetables. Ron tucked in immediately, as usual, and she suspected his contribution to the conversation would resume once he had finished. She smiled to herself. As his friend, his table manners really didn't bother her. But she suspected, if they had married, eventually his etiquette would have been as nerve-fraying as a screeching banshee. Professor Snape, on the other hand, had impeccable table manners, though he was as short on conversation when eating as Ron was. At least for breakfast, lunch and tea.
"Could Snape be sending all the Death Eaters to the same place?" Harry asked as he cut his meat into bite-sized pieces. She hadn't overheard enough information to verify that possibility. She shrugged and then ventured a carefully worded question of her own.
"Why aren't the Aurors keeping tabs on . . . Professor Snape?"
"Kingsley says he's a war hero and above reproach. The Minister of Magic trusts him implicitly. His orders are to leave Snape alone."
Hermione could understand that. Kingsley would have copious proof of Snape's loyalty, not only from the final battle at Hogwarts and Harry's testimony, but also from the fact that the potions master was working on a cure for the horrible Fiendfyre curse Voldemort had blasted him with. There was no way to explain that project using Charades, Twenty Questions or Pictionary, especially since it was a privacy issue as well. If Kingsley or Minerva wanted to tell Harry, that was up to them. It wasn't Hermione's place to divulge such information even in an attempt to mitigate Harry's conspiracy theory.
"But . . . ?" She prompted.
"But something's not right. He should be turning these people in. What if Snape is forming a colony of Death Eaters beyond Ministry control? "
"Do you have any actual proof of that?"
"No," Harry replied sullenly. "But if I can get some, Kingsley will have to listen to me. Knowing for certain that Snape is meeting with Death Eaters is a start," he said and looked at her expectantly.
"That behavior is certainly suspicious," Hermione agreed. She did indeed find it odd that Professor Snape was in contact with and apparently aiding known war criminals. But did she really believe that he was set on becoming the next Dark Lord? That idea just didn't fit with what she observed about the man. He was too studious and too contemplative. He seemed to genuinely enjoy learning and appeared completely content with running his apothecary. Total world domination would seem a protrusive item on his agenda, not matching with any of his other pursuits or interests.
And although his manner was blunt and gruff, his actions were nothing of the sort. He had treated her more decently than she had expected and his behavior toward Winky, well, the elf obviously adored her master.
"But I don't agree with what you think his intent might be," she continued, hating to disappoint Harry, but feeling she needed to warn him. "Since I can't tell you everything I know, the only thing I can do is to give you my general impressions and I just can't see Professor Snape wanting to take over the world, wizarding, Muggle, both or either. Sorry, Harry."
"Well, at least keep your eyes and ears peeled," he said, obvious disappointment showing.
"I will," she promised. Couldn't hurt to be observant. After all, those visiting Death Eaters should be in Azkaban.
"Let's finish up here and go to Grimmauld Place to play some real games," Ron said, surfacing for air after having polished off both his meals. "Exploding Snap or Gobstones? What do you say to that, you two?"
"Sounds like a great idea," Hermione sided with Ron. "I really need to unstring the bow, so to speak, and that sounds like a perfect way to do so. And let's stop off and get some Muggle ice cream on the way. We can have dessert while we play."
With plans for the rest of the evening made, she and Harry took a few more minutes to clean their plates and then they all left the pub for an evening of relaxation.
Snape felt Miss Granger's absence keenly. As soon as she left out the back of the shop and Apparated away, he sensed some of his strength drain from him. He decided he would invest the rest of his evening in the library. He had a few obscure potion manuscripts that might give him some insights on how to counter the adverse effects of Lethe Water in the potion he was giving Kingsley and Minerva. Sitting down in the comfortable leather chair behind his desk, he pulled the old parchments toward him. His concentration was off tonight as well. He rubbed his eyes and attempted to refocus on his topic.
When dinner time rolled around he had Winky bring a snack to him where he sat in the library. Appetite seemed to have fled with his strength. Pulling out his journal, he tried to let his thoughts float, hopefully to make connections he hadn't made before, but to no avail. Finally, his focus completely broken, he decided to go to bed early. His breathing was noticeably labored now. Had he been this bad before Miss Granger had so fortuitously arrived on his doorstep just last week?
His room wasn't nearly as large as he had made his apprentice's quarters; he didn't need it to be. It had a large, very comfortable bed - there were a few items he indulged in. He was not the ascetic that some believed him to be. One wardrobe stood in a corner by the door, housing his clothing and robes. The fireplace, as yet unlit this season, was across from the bed. Although temperatures were cooling as fall advanced, it was not yet as cold in these quarters as it always was in the dungeons at Hogwarts. The door to his bathroom, also much smaller than Miss Granger's, was on the far wall.
He stripped quickly, tossing his clothing into a basket in the wardrobe. Winky would clean them tomorrow and they would be back, ready to use, hanging next to the rest of his clothes. Pulling on a pair of Muggle pajama pants, he crawled into bed. He was so tired, sleep took him quickly. His last remembered thought was to wonder if Miss Granger would use her whole five hours off.
Consciousness slowly seeped back into his mind and his first tentative awareness was feeling warmer than usual. Luxuriously warm, actually, for not having a fire on the hearth. He usually slept partially on his side, with his arm crooked, that hand under his pillow, and a bent leg propping up his hips. When he went to roll onto his back, to enjoy a good stretch before waking completely, he found his arm pinned to the bed. Cracking open an eye, it was too dark to see anything. He lifted his head, coming fully awake and put a bit more muscle into lifting his arm. A face full of hair was his only reward. What the hell . . .? He tried to move his leg, but it was tangled with someone else's.
"Lumos," he whispered and a tiny dot of blue light floated above him. He gently brushed away the mass of hair and found a face in profile. Miss Granger's face. Her back was snugged up against his chest and her legs entwined with his. He was flummoxed.
How could she have climbed in next to him and he not wake up? True, he had been exhausted when he had retired to his bed, but to that extent?
And why would she do such a thing? He studied her face, eyes closed and lost in sleep. He couldn't believe that she would actually choose to be here, so his mind searched for alternatives. Could she have returned to the shop, in the dark, and mistaken his quarters for hers? That was unlikely, unless . . . no, she didn't smell of alcohol. The only other possible answer was that Miss Granger was a sleepwalker. She let out a soft sigh and made a slight movement of her head, freeing his arm.
"Nox!" he whispered quickly. He had to get her back to her own bed without waking her. If she was a sleepwalker she wouldn't, gratefully, remember anything about this. He quietly extricated his limbs from hers and eased out of his bed. She didn't wake.
He was momentarily tempted to sweep her up in his arms and carry her back to her room, to her bed. Shaking his head to clear it, he attributed that brief lapse to Minerva's . . . meddling . . . earlier that day. Summoning his wand, he placed a very mild sleeping spell on the girl to ensure she didn't wake and then cast a Mobilicorpus to move her from his room, across the hall and into her own bed.
Returning to his room, he cast a clock charm. It was three in the morning, an hour and an half before he usually awoke. But he was feeling quite energetic, the impairment from the night before completely gone. Was that an effect of being so close to Miss Granger for however long she had been in his bed? He pondered that question as he opened the wardrobe and dressed for the day. And he would have to start locking his door at night if he had a sleepwalker on the premises.