Author: little beloved PM
*WINNER: Of five 2007 OWL Awards, in categories Romance, Drama, A/U, Challenge and Fire & Ice. Winner of Mugglenet Quicksilver Quill Award 2008 and SS/HG Award for best Romance 2008.* Five years after the fall of Voldemort, Hermione and Severus receive unhappy news.Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Drama - Severus S. & Hermione G. - Chapters: 32 - Words: 200,772 - Reviews: 948 - Favs: 276 - Follows: 557 - Updated: 05-18-13 - Published: 02-01-13 - id: 8967842
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A traveller of thoughts and years, of peace and war,
Of youth long sped and middle age declining,
(As the first volume of a tale perused and laid away, and this the second,
Songs, ventures, speculations, presently to close,)
Lingering a moment here and now, to you I opposite turn,
As on the road or at some crevice door by chance, or open'd window,
Pausing, inclining, baring my head, you specially I greet,
To draw and clinch your soul for once inseparably with mine,
Then travel, travel on.
Walt Whitman, Out from Behind this Mask
After Severus had left, Hermione spent an hour curled up on the armchair in the sitting room. Biting her fingernails, she thought about the things he had said. It was the first time since Theo had left that she hadn't wallowed in the fact that she was an abandoned wife.
She was ashamed, now, of how she had behaved during the past two weeks. When she had read Theo's note, she'd climbed beneath the covers of what had been their bed and wept. The weeping had continued for quite some time.
All she had thought about was how she'd failed; how she had overreacted to what Theo had insisted was just a 'harmless bit of weed'. She had slept fitfully, haunted even in her dreams by her estranged husband.
She'd dreamt frequently of the Forest of Dean – of the night that Ron had returned to them. Except sometimes it hadn't been Ron at all; sometimes the man in the dream had assumed Theo's face. She had woken from these dreams in tears, but the other dreams had been far, far worse. She had dreamt that her Goblin-wrought ring had burned, and in these nightmares her entire arm had burst into flame. She'd woken screaming more than once.
On those occasions, Moe had come to her and had gently stroked her hand, telling her over and over again that it would be okay, that Master Theodore was just a bad husband. The worst of it was that Hermione knew Theo wasn't all bad. He was selfish and immature, yes, but he wasn't bad. Neither of them was really to blame; they had just made an enormous mistake when they'd decided to wed. Her marriage was over and there was nothing she could do about it. But it was just so very hard to accept.
She could hardly believe two whole weeks had passed. Now that Severus Snape had snapped her out of her trance of self-pity, she was mortified to have given her friends cause for distress. She'd been horribly self-centred. She hadn't answered any of their owls or let them into her house, and Moe had guarded her privacy with great dedication. Hermione knew that if the tables had been turned, if one of her friends had disappeared, she would have been dreadfully worried. She'd meant what she said about the Department of Mysteries: she was not sorry to have lost her job, but she was sorry to have given the people she loved reason to fret.
Severus was right: she had not been herself since she'd become engaged to Theodore Nott. It was time to stop focusing on what everybody expected of her and to concentrate instead on what would make her happy. The time to move forward had come. Decided, she headed to the kitchen. She couldn't act on an empty stomach. With a smile, she realised her appetite had finally returned.
It was dusk when Severus heard the slam of the front door. Cordelia had obviously received his owl, and, judging by the ferocity with which she had just closed the door, she was not at all pleased to have had her weekend interrupted.
Extinguishing the flame beneath two of his cauldrons and leaving a third to bubble, he stowed his wand beneath his cloak and ascended the stairs. Cordelia had more than one reason to be displeased. With many pure-blood families – the Mills, Malfoys and Parkinsons among them – discreet extra-marital affairs were commonplace. But appearances were of vital significance, and abandoning your wife of less than two years was not likely to gain much in the way of familial support. Theodore, like his father before him, had brought shame upon the family, and Cordelia would not be happy. He fully expected Theo to be on the receiving end of at least one irate Howler that night.
"Severus?" she called from the living room.
"Cordelia," he answered, joining her. "Thank you for returning so quickly."
"What is the meaning of this? I'd arranged to dine with friends this evening, and I've been forced to cancel!"
"I'm afraid there's a pressing matter at hand," he explained, crossing to the drinks cabinet. "Would you care for a brandy?"
She frowned. "No, I would not like a brandy. I would like to know why you've cut short my weekend."
He narrowed his eyes. "Believe me, Cordelia, I wouldn't have cut short your weekend if it had not been important. You're not going to like what I have to say, so I suggest you accept a drink."
"Fine!" she snapped, settling herself in an armchair. "I'll have a brandy."
He poured a generous measure of brandy into a crystal tumbler and reflected on how very like her son she was. He handed her the drink before taking his seat in the armchair opposite.
She raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you joining me in a drink?"
He shook his head. "I've had a few hours to absorb this veritable bombshell."
She flashed him a smirk. "You're being incredibly dramatic, Severus. Why not just explain what's going on?"
"Theodore has left Hermione. Permanently."
Cordelia's face paled. "What? What do you mean, permanently? I'm sure he's just gone travelling!"
Severus shook his head. "Their marriage has broken up. He left her a note in which he made it clear that he has absolutely no intention of returning."
Cordelia fell silent for a moment. She shook her head and, raising the crystal tumbler to her lips, knocked back the contents. She held out the empty glass.
"A double, please," she said.
He took the glass from her now quivering hand, feeling a pang of compassion for her. She had been bitterly disappointed by her first husband, and now her family had been dishonoured by her only son. He filled her glass with the dark liquid and returned to his seat.
"When did this happen?" she asked.
"Two weeks ago."
"Two weeks ago?" she asked, incredulous. "Why are we only finding out about it now?"
"I had a visit this morning from Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter. They were concerned about Hermione as she hasn't turned up for work this past fortnight. They had called to the house on a number of occasions and had been refused entry by Moe. I went to investigate and found Hermione in rather a state. With a little coercion, she eventually explained what had happened."
"And what exactly has happened?"
"It would seem they've realised they are ill-suited. Theo wants to travel the world, and Hermione wants to stay at home."
"They think it acceptable to just split up because they haven't the same taste in holidays? This is ludicrous!"
"It's a little bit more serious than a disagreement as to holiday destinations, Cordelia," he said. "And Hermione had no say in the matter. Theo left her in the middle of the night without any warning. He left her a note; she did not have a chance to dissuade him."
She tapped her painted nails on the arm of the chair. "I cannot believe he's done this! What was he thinking? She must surely have given him good reason to leave."
Severus gritted his teeth. "Cordelia, she did little more than refuse to take off around the world. Besides, the girl is hardly to blame for their incompatibility. They were never suited."
"I'm not trying to excuse Theo's behaviour, Severus. But you must agree that it's much more normal at their age to want to travel rather than to remain at home, shackled to a menial job," she said, wrinkling her nose.
"Not everyone wants to live the life of a nomad. Some of us thrive on hard work."
"I understand you enjoy your work," she said patiently, "and that's perfectly normal for somebody your age. I just think it's unusual for a twenty-five year old woman to be, well, so settled, I suppose."
She extracted her wand from her leather handbag and Summoned a piece of parchment and a quill. Severus watched as she began to scribble on the paper.
"What are your intentions?" he asked.
"I will send my son a rather angry Howler, after which I will return to Scotland."
"Cordelia," he said, losing his temper. "You will do no such thing until you have paid a visit to your daughter-in-law!"
"Severus, I'm certain I'm the very last person in the world poor Hermione would like to see right now. I'm sure you did an admirable job of patting her on the back."
"The girl has been languishing in that house and crying her eyes out because of your son," he said, his jaw clenched. "The least you could do is go over there and reassure her that she's still one of the family and will continue as such. She needs to know she is not the one in the wrong."
Cordelia looked surprised. "But I'm sure she's well aware of that, Severus. If they're not divorced, nothing need even be said. It stands to reason that she will continue to live as one of the family."
"Cordelia, I insist you pay Hermione a visit. You know very well that she was Muggle-raised; she does not fully understand that tradition dictates she is still a part of this family. You need to talk to her."
She held the tip of the quill between her teeth for a moment, then raised her gaze to his. "Fine. I'll speak to her once I've written to Theo."
"Good," he said, making his way to the door.
"Your concern for her welfare is touching, Severus," Cordelia muttered before he left the room.
He turned and looked at her, detecting a subtle challenge in her gaze. "Contrary to popular opinion," he drawled, "I'm not made entirely of ice. It's not pleasant to see an intelligent young woman in such a state of anxiety."
He closed the door loudly behind him, eager once more for the solitude of his laboratory.
Hermione was greedily tucking into her second helping of steak and kidney pie.
"Moe," she said, her mouth full, "you are the most wonderful cook in the whole of London. Possibly even in the whole world."
The house-elf looked pleasantly flustered. She waved her bony hands in the air. "And you is the silliest girl in the whole of London. You is skinny from not eating, Miss Hermione."
"I know," Hermione said, examining her frail wrists. She picked up her glass of pumpkin juice and drained the contents. "But I fully intend to regain every pound I've lost and probably a few more besides."
She was just scraping the last of her pie from the plate when the unmistakable creak of the front door came from the floor above them. She looked at Moe, eyes wide.
"Moe?" cried a familiar voice from the hallway. "Are you home?"
"It's Mistress Cordelia," Moe whispered. "Is I letting her in?"
Hermione sighed – she certainly wasn't relishing the thought of this particular interview.
"She's family, so I don't think we've an awful lot of choice in the matter. Would you ask her to come down here, Moe?"
Moe nodded and disappeared with a click of her fingers. Hermione heard the crack as the elf reappeared at the top of the stairs, followed by a hushed conversation. Taking out the band holding her hair in a ponytail, she quickly scooped her unruly mane into a neat bun at the nape of her neck.
Cordelia entered the kitchen with a sympathetic smile.
"Oh, Hermione," she said breathily, crossing the room and kissing her daughter-in-law on both cheeks. "Severus told me everything!"
Hermione felt dishevelled next to her immaculately groomed mother-in-law. She didn't know what to say, so she just nodded.
Cordelia sat down and patted her on the hand. "While I understand Theo's love of travel, I'm appalled by his behaviour. It is truly reprehensible."
"Thank you," Hermione said, unsure of whose side Cordelia was really on. "It was something of a shock."
"I know, I know! Young men can be horribly unpredictable. I'm sure you'll be delighted to know that I've sent him a nasty Howler." She flashed Hermione an indulgent smile.
Hermione returned her smile uncertainly, thinking that the situation called for something more than a Howler – some sort of castrating hex, perhaps.
"Severus thinks it would be possible for me to continue living here," she said.
"But of course!" Cordelia replied. "This is your home. You are legally entitled to all that is Theo's now that he has ... absented himself."
"But are you certain it's socially acceptable? That it won't embarrass you in front of the rest of the family?"
"Hermione, Hermione," Cordelia said, patting her on the hand again. "Most of the family are rather elderly, as you've probably noticed, and I'm sure they'll hardly even remark on Theo's absence – it's not as though he's ever been a regular attendee at family gatherings."
"But what if they ask? What am I supposed to say? I don't want to cause you trouble."
"If people ask, I will tell them that Theodore has gone travelling, which is entirely truthful. Your answer is completely at your own discretion. You may tell them he is abroad or, if you insist, you are free to tell them the truth." Her tone of voice clearly implied that she would much prefer the former.
Hermione fiddled with the hem of her jumper, unsure of what to say next.
"I know this is awkward for you, Hermione. But we all have our crosses to bear – we all have skeletons in the closet. You've done nothing wrong – you must walk with that chin held high!"
Grateful, Hermione gave her mother-in-law a smile.
"That's better!" Cordelia said, rising from the table. "Now, I have a dinner engagement, so I really must be on my way. Look on the bright side, Hermione. You're looking wonderfully slim, and you know what they say: you can never be too thin or too rich!"
She kissed Hermione again and walked to the kitchen door. "I was delighted to hear you've resigned from the Department of Mysteries. I host a coffee morning in aid of St. Mungo's each Monday; now that you're a woman of leisure, you would be very welcome to attend."
Hermione frowned. "Well, I haven't made my decision yet – I told Severus I'd let him know about the job by tomorrow night."
Cordelia looked puzzled. "The job?"
"Yes. I'm sorry; I presumed he would have told you. He offered me the job as his Potions Assistant."
"I see. For somebody so dour he can be very charitable at times," she said with a bemused smile.
With a little wave, she left the room, leaving Hermione to smart over her parting remark.
When the bang of the front door had signalled Cordelia's departure, Hermione walked down the corridor to the master bedroom. She took hold of the end of her jumper and pulled it over her head. Standing before the mirror in her jeans and bra, she examined her down-sized torso. Her ribs were visible, and her once-rounded breasts had shrunk. She had to disagree with her mother-in-law: you could be too thin.
She crossed to the dressing table and took her makeup bag from a drawer. She had letters of apology to write to her friends, and she had neglected Padma dreadfully. It was high time she paid her little goddaughter a visit.
Hermione knew by the look on Dean's face that he was angry with her.
"Hermione!" he whispered furiously. "Padma has enough on her plate at the moment without fretting over her best friend. Where the hell have you been?"
Hermione's eyes immediately filled. "Dean, I'm so, so sorry. I feel dreadfully guilty, and if you'll give me a chance, I'll explain everything."
He looked contrite. "Come on in," he said with a sigh. "I didn't mean to attack you – we're just a bit worn out. Padma will be glad to see you."
He motioned for her to enter the front room, and she gently pushed open the door, afraid she might wake the babies. She couldn't help but smile at the sight of Padma's usually spotless sitting room. There were tiny items of pink clothing scattered everywhere; little socks dotted the sofa; and the smell of baby powder filled the air. Her smile widened when she saw Padma, who was rocking one baby in her arms while the other slept in a Moses basket at her feet.
"Hi," Hermione whispered, her guilt increasing at the expression of delighted relief on Padma's face.
"Hermione!" Padma said softly, quickly clearing the seat next to her of baby paraphernalia. "I'm so glad to see you! I've been really worried."
Hermione crossed the room and kissed her friend on the cheek. "Padma, I'm so sorry I haven't been in contact. It's probably been the most difficult time of your life, and I wasn't there for you. Can you ever forgive me?"
"Hermione, of course I forgive you – I just want to know what's been going on. Here," she said, handing the baby to Hermione. "I'd be glad of a rest from your goddaughter. She really likes being held, and she's getting heavy."
Hermione accepted the swaddled infant with a beaming smile. "My goodness," she said, gazing at Preeya. "They've grown so much in two weeks! They're even more gorgeous than when they were born."
Padma smiled and stretched her aching arms. "They're very good, to be honest. Thanks to Dean and a Muggle breast-pump, I've been getting about five hours sleep a night, which is pretty good for new-born twins!"
Hermione gazed at the beautiful baby in her arms and tenderly stroked her cheek. "Any news about Parvati?"
Padma nodded. "She had the baby on Wednesday night. Another boy! They've called him Liam." Padma tore her gaze from her daughter and looked at Hermione. "You've lost an awful lot of weight, Hermione. What's happened?"
She took a deep breath. "Theo and I have broken up."
Padma's face fell. "Oh, Hermione! I'm so sorry. When did this happen?"
"Two weeks ago, just after you'd had the girls."
Padma shook her head. "I knew something must be very wrong when I didn't hear from you. Are you going to divorce?"
Hermione sighed. "I don't know – not yet at any rate. We had quite an argument about what we should do in the future. Theo, of course, wanted to take off around the world again, and I wanted to stay and try to work things out. When he didn't get his way, he left. Didn't even tell me where he was going – he just left a note."
"What a selfish bastard! Have you any idea where he is?"
She shook her head. "I can't say for sure – I guess he's with friends in Germany or the Netherlands. I don't really care, to be honest."
The door swung open and Dean came in carrying a tray of tea and sandwiches.
"Hermione and Theo have broken up," Padma said as she took the tray from Dean and set it on the coffee table.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said, pouring her a cup of tea. "Did you hear about Dennis and Demelza?"
Hermione nodded. "Severus told me this morning. I could hardly believe it; they seemed so fond of each other."
Dean shrugged. "You never can tell, I suppose. I thought Michael Corner and Pansy Parkinson would have fallen apart by now, but they seem happy."
Padma handed Hermione a cheese sandwich and glanced at her daughter. "I think Preeya likes you – she's asleep already!" She fetched the second Moses basket and moved to take the baby from Hermione.
"Could I hold her for a little longer?" Hermione asked. "She's just so lovely."
Padma beamed. "Of course you can. Let me know when you want to put her down." She sat back down and poured herself a cup of tea. "So, if you broke up two weeks ago, what's been going on since then?"
Hermione blushed. "I'm a little ashamed of how I've behaved. I just locked myself in my room for two weeks and hoped it was all a terrible dream."
Padma frowned. "What about work?"
"I've been dismissed. They sent me numerous owls, but I didn't answer any of them."
"What? Oh, Hermione! Why ever did you do that?"
"I hated the job," she insisted. "I was only staying there because I didn't want Theo to have an excuse to drag me off travelling again. Severus has offered me a job as his Potions Assistant."
"Are you serious? The position you applied for when we got back from Paris?" Padma asked.
Hermione nodded. "I know he probably only did it because he feels sorry for me, but I'm quite tempted. I've seen his laboratory – it's unbelievable!"
Padma looked dubious. "Severus Snape, though. Do you think you could handle him?"
"I'm not sure," she confessed, "but I might give it a try. There aren't many jobs on offer, and I'd rather not accept money from the Mills. I'm nervous about taking the job, though. If it goes badly it could make my life very, very difficult."
They discussed her predicament for a further hour, until the babies woke up, demanding to be fed. It was almost ten by the time she left, having presented Moe's knitwear and two shiny new copies of Hogwarts: A History. She promised to return the following weekend and took her leave feeling no nearer to making a decision than she had when she had arrived. There were only twenty-four hours left before Severus Snape required an answer. She had a lot of thinking to do.
By four o'clock the following afternoon, Hermione was certain her mother would never speak to her again. When she had broken the news to her parents over Sunday lunch, her mother had wept. That her daughter should be a divorcee at such a tender age would have been bad enough, but that she should be shackled still to her estranged husband was simply too much for Jane Granger. Once the tears had passed, the shouting had begun.
Hermione had hoped for at least a little moral support from her parents, but her mother just couldn't understand why she wanted to remain living with her husband's family when he had abandoned her. Her mother had insisted she return to live with them, but remembering all too well the frustration of summer holidays away from the magical world, Hermione had refused. The shouting had continued until she had fled to the relative tranquillity of Kensington Square.
Hermione was completely drained when she returned from her disastrous visit to her parents' house. Ever the pragmatist, she headed straight for the study and took parchment and a quill from the mahogany bureau. Drawing a straight line down the middle of the page, she began to list the advantages and disadvantages of working for Severus Snape.
She had expected the negatives to far outweigh the positives, but as her list grew steadily longer, she realised that she had come to rather like Severus Snape. She liked his sarcasm; she liked his perfectionism; she even liked his lack of tolerance. There was no doubt he would be a difficult man to work for, but there was every chance he might make an exciting boss. And although she was an accomplished Potioneer, she had always lacked instinctive flair. If there was one thing that excited Hermione Granger, it was the prospect of learning, and she was convinced there was much to learn from the Half-Blood Prince.
But then again, she stood to lose much if their working partnership failed. In fact, there was every chance he might actually hex her into oblivion if her work was not to his liking. After an entire hour of scribbling on the parchment and gazing thoughtfully out at the darkening back garden, she totted up both columns on her page. The numbers were almost exactly equal. No nearing to reaching a decision, she descended to the basement in search of tea.
When she got to the kitchen, she found Lance at the table, a pot of tea and his ebony cane before him. His long grey hair hung loosely about his shoulders, and he was dressed in the most garish lavender robes Hermione had ever seen.
"Lance!" she said, crossing the room to hug him. "We weren't expecting you back until the end of the month."
He returned her embrace and motioned to the seat beside him. "I had an owl from Severus last night," he explained, peering at her above his little round spectacles. "He's rather worried about you, it would seem."
"I presume that means you've heard about Theo?"
He nodded and poured her a cup of tea. "Sod Theo, I say. The lad's an idiot. Let him go. Why on earth would an intelligent girl like you want to mix your genes up with a fool like Theodore Nott, eh?"
She looked at the elderly man, trying to figure out whether or not he was joking. She watched in silence as he added a fifth lump of sugar to his tea.
"What you need," he said, pointing a crooked finger at her, "is an intelligent man. A man – not a boy."
Hermione chuckled. "Well, there's that small problem of still being Theo's wife."
Lance arched a grey eyebrow. "And why would that be a problem? Since when have spouses of the aristocracy ever been faithful? Much better to take a lover than to abandon your wife!"
She sipped at her tea, not knowing if Lance's outlook was incredibly archaic or frighteningly modern. "I think I'll spend a while getting over this marriage before I jump into another relationship."
"Moe and I were rather looking forward to some babies, weren't we, Moe?" he asked, turning to the elf, who was pottering about the stove.
Moe nodded. "There will be babies; Muggle-borns is always having babies."
Hermione grinned, wondering if Moe had any knowledge at all of the basics of human reproduction. There were not likely to be any babies in the near future. She quickly changed the subject.
"I'm sorry you had to cut your holiday short – Severus shouldn't have bothered you. How was Newt Scamander? Did you have fun?"
"Not nearly as much fun as we used to have when we were young," he said, giving her a wink, "and not a Clabbert in sight!"
"That's a pity," she said, reaching for a biscuit. "Were you and Newt at Hogwarts together?"
He waved a gnarled hand in the air. "We didn't really know one another at school, but his brother Horatio and I were lovers in our late twenties."
Hermione promptly choked on her tea.
Lance chuckled. "My dear girl, is it such a shock? Do you think heterosexual wizards dress like this? Hmmm?"
Her coughing fit subsided. "I don't know ... I just never ... "
"My mother always said it was obvious from about the age of ten that I was as gay as Christmas. Anyway, it's all null and void when you get to my age," he said with a sigh. "The arthritis generally gets in the way of one's exploits."
Desirous not to hear about Lance's exploits, she groped for another topic. "Have you spoken with Severus since you got back?"
"Yes. He told me he offered you a job."
Hermione nodded and began to nibble at a fingernail. "He wants an answer by tonight, and I've no idea what to do."
Lance regarded her with a most curious expression on his face. "Do you like Potions?"
She nodded. "Yes, very much."
"Do you like Severus?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied. "At least, I think so. More than I used to, anyway."
He tugged at the end of his beard for a moment. Eventually he asked, "What is going on between you and Severus?"
She raised her eyebrows in genuine surprise. "What do you mean?"
He placed his bony elbows on the table. "I've been watching the pair of you interact since you became engaged to Theo, and it's obvious that there are issues between you."
Hermione's cheeks grew warm. "He was my teacher; I was a Gryffindor; he didn't like me. I asked too many questions in class and probably drove him insane. That's about it."
Lance examined her face. "You saved his life, didn't you?"
She gasped. "How did you know?"
He smiled. "It's well known that he was gravely injured on the night of the final battle and spent many months recovering in St. Mungo's. I've been friendly with Minerva McGonagall for some time. She mentioned once that it was you who raised the alarm and led the Healers to his whereabouts. I imagine that such a debt would greatly complicate a student-teacher relationship."
She nodded. "Maybe that's the only reason he's offering me the job: he feels like he owes it to me."
"Perhaps. But in very many ways I suspect the two of you to be oddly compatible. I imagine it's a matter of Severus controlling his tongue and you doing the same. Having said that, the man is a perfectionist; he will not be easy to work for."
Hermione shrugged. "I quite like a challenge."
Lance added another sugar lump to his tea. "He's an incredibly complex man, Hermione, and if you work for him, do bear that in mind. His experiences have made him what he is."
She nodded silently, thinking of Lily Potter and the unhappy childhood she knew Severus Snape had endured.
Lance gave her a broad smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "Take the job, Hermione. It would be an adventure, and Merlin knows you could do with an adventure after putting up with Theo for so long."
"But what if I ruin this truce I have with Severus? I'm already in an awkward position here, and I don't want to make it any worse."
Lance picked up his cane and pointed it at her. "Take the job, girl. It might be the best thing you ever do."
She closed her eyes. Taking that job might also be the worst thing she ever did. But Severus Snape had been kind to her since she'd married Theo; she'd finally seen that there was more to him than the dungeon-dwelling, fear-inspiring Potions master. If things did not work out, she could leave after her three-month trial period and rethink her life. But maybe Lance was right: it could be the best thing she ever did.
She opened her eyes. "Okay. I'll take the job."
Lance beamed. "Excellent! Off you go," he said, motioning to the door.
"Yes! Why wait? Go and put the poor man out of his misery: he's up to his eyes in Potions contracts."
"Okay," she said uncertainly, running a hand through her hair. "I'll just go and tie my hair up."
Lance clicked his tongue impatiently. "Just leave it as is, girl. Go on!"
"Okay, I'll just do it," she agreed, suddenly resolute. She was about to go when he stopped her.
"Hermione?" he asked quietly.
Lance gazed at her over his glasses. "He watches you, you know."
"I'm sorry?" she asked, confused.
"Severus," he said. "He does it with great discretion, but he watches you constantly."
She didn't know what to say. Why would Severus Snape watch her? Why was Lance telling her this?
"Go on, then," Lance said. "Don't leave the poor man waiting all day."
Severus had been pacing the floor of his study for almost an hour. He was already regretting having offered Hermione the job as his assistant – she wasn't nearly grateful enough. When he had rashly proposed she take the position, he had expected her to accept immediately. He was put-out that she hadn't accepted the job with declarations of profuse gratitude.
It was seven o'clock when he heard her tentative knock at the front door. Taking a deep breath and ensuring he was wearing his very sternest Potions master expression, he descended the stairs and opened the door. She looked wild: her pupils were dilated and her hair was fanned out around her like a halo.
"Hermione," he said, glancing at his watch. "I hope you've finally condescended to grace me with an answer?"
"I accept," she gushed breathily. "I'd love to take the job ... Thank you."
He was both pleased and disappointed. "In that case, we have a contract to discuss. If you'd care to follow me to my study?"
He led the way to the first floor of the house, and gestured for her to take the velvet-covered chair before his broad desk.
"Ooooh," she said, turning to look at his bookshelves. "You have this library in addition to your Potions books in the laboratory?"
"Fascinating as I find my subject, I'm inclined to pursue more diverse reading material in the evenings. I assure you there will be opportunities for you to explore my library in the future, but if you wouldn't mind, I would rather like to finalise your contract."
"Yes, of course. I'm sorry."
He opened a small drinks cabinet with a flick of his wand. "Might I interest you in a drink?"
"Yes, please," she said, fiddling nervously with her watch. "Some mead would be lovely, if you have it."
He gave her a mock glare. "You desire alcohol when you begin work at eight tomorrow morning? A clear head will be necessary."
She looked mortified. "Oh, I'm sorry ... Just some tea, perhaps … or pumpkin juice."
He smirked and handed her a glass of mead. "I jest, Hermione." He seated himself behind his desk, a large tumbler of Firewhisky in his hand.
He extracted some documents from a drawer. "I have a copy of a standard three-month contract. Much of it is, of course, negotiable, and if you will consent to give me a moment, I'll look it over and tailor it more precisely to your good self."
She nodded, and he began to scan the contents of the contract, tapping the parchment with his wand every now and again. He was aware of her gaze upon him as he amended the text, and he wondered what she was thinking. He could tell she was nervous, and he reminded himself to curtail his sarcasm. After a few minutes, he was satisfied with his work and pushed the contract towards her.
"You are referred to throughout the document as the Assistant Potioneer, and I am referred to as the Principal Potioneer," he explained.
She picked it up and began to examine the first page. While she read, he took the opportunity to study her face: she already looked better than she had the previous morning. The shadows beneath her eyes were not so evident, and there was colour in her cheeks. But it was in her eyes that he noticed the greatest change: gone was the dull, depressed look that had been so apparent. Her eyes shone once more, and she looked more alive, more vibrant than he had seen her for quite some time. He picked up his glass and raised it to his lips, his gaze never leaving her face over the rim of the tumbler.
She flicked to the second page, and he watched in amusement as she smiled.
"The Principal Potioneer reserves the sole right to choose the music played in the laboratory?" she asked.
He nodded. "I enjoy listening to music while I brew."
"What sort of music?"
"Orchestral music. I hate opera."
She gave a gasp. "Have you heard Don Giovanni?"
"I've no wish to hear Don Giovanni. I've just said that I hate opera."
"How can you possibly say you hate opera if you haven't heard the best opera ever written?"
He glared at her across the table. "Kindly read the next item on the contract."
She lowered her gaze to the paper once more. After a moment, she giggled. "The Assistant Potioneer is restricted to three questions per day with the exception of all questions related directly to the brewing of potions."
He smirked. "And the next …"
"The Principal Potioneer is in no way obliged to answer these questions, with the exception of all questions related directly to the brewing of potions," she read. She looked at him and grinned.
"You've just illustrated the need for such clauses most admirably, Hermione," he drawled.
Still smiling, she turned to the final page and reached for the quill on his desk, signing her name at the bottom with a flourish. She placed the contract and the quill back on the desk and reached for her drink.
"I take it the contract is now legally and magically binding?" she asked.
He pulled the document across the table and picked up the quill. "It will be as soon as I sign it."
He scribbled his name below hers. The signatures glowed bright blue for a moment, reminding him painfully of the day she had signed her marriage contract in his presence.
"Do you promise to control your temper?" she asked.
"Do you promise to control your insatiable curiosity?" he countered.
She chuckled. "I'll certainly try," she said. Her expression became more serious. "I'm very grateful for this, Severus. I'll do my very best."
He inclined his head. "I would expect no less of you. You found all the clauses agreeable?"
She nodded. "Yes, it's fine. I just wanted to ask – I don't want to seem irreverent ... Would you prefer if I addressed you as 'Professor' or 'Sir' when we are at work?"
He regarded her for a second and then shook his head. "My given name will suffice. I know we've been on friendlier terms these past few months, Hermione, but you may recall that I'm not the easiest man to work with. I have more contracts for potions than I can deal with at present; it will not be an easy job, and I will expect a great deal of hard work."
"I enjoy hard work," she replied with a glance at her watch. "I'd like to revise some of my Potions notes tonight. If it's okay, I'll take my leave."
He rose with a brief nod. "I'll show you out."
When they reached the front door, she turned to him and offered her hand. "Thank you for giving me a chance, Severus. I hope I'll prove you were right to do so."
He took her hand and shook it firmly. "I hope you will."
"And I just wanted to say," she began, her voice shaking, "the night of the final battle ..."
He narrowed his eyes, wary of what she would say next.
She lowered her voice to a whisper. "I did not act as I did out of a sense of pity, but out of a sense of deepest gratitude and admiration."
She turned and fled across Kensington Square.
Severus watched her walk away and wondered what, exactly, he had gotten himself into.