Chapter Thirteen

Snape opened the door to the French classroom with as much trepidation as a first-year Muggle-born attending her first Potion's class. He had tried to talk himself out of turning up for one last French class, but if he had dared to be completely honest with himself, he would have to admit that he had not tried very hard. Calling into the Three Broomsticks for a small glass of Dutch courage was the final push he had needed. Madam Rosmerta had brow-beaten him into confessing his foolish intention, and she had all but marched him to the French class herself—as he knew she would: it had required very little persuasion to make up his mind once and for all. A final goodbye was what he called it, but in truth, he wanted to see for himself if there was any flicker of recognition beyond the fact that he was her student. The Healer's Obliviate spell should have annihilated every scrap of information pertaining to magic, including Severus Snape.

The class turned around in response to the sound of the door opening, but soon lost interest when they recognised their strange classmate.

Rachael's hair was tied back in the same style as he remembered when he had first seen her at the train station. She wore a green cotton dress edged with cream lace and her long sleeves were pushed up to the elbows as was her habit when she meant business. It had been less than a week, but he had missed her smile.

'Ah! Mr Snape,' she said. 'Good of you to join us.'

'Bonsoir, Madam,' he replied smoothly, walking to the front of the classroom and taking his usual seat. 'I apologise for my late arrival.'

He was aware of the silence in the room and that she watched him diligently until he was seated.

'Well, you're here now. Do you have the homework I set you? We were just going through it.'

'Je l'ai laissé dans le train,' he replied in perfect French.

Madam Saunders raised her eyebrows. 'Ton Français s'améliore mais pas ton attitude. You will need to stay behind, Mr Snape, while I go through the basics of what you have missed.'

Her bright and welcoming smile as he had entered the classroom was the only sign of remembrance he observed. As the lesson continued, he dismissed its significance as nothing more than the deception of his own mind which desired a gesture of hope and turned the innocuous act of a smile into something more meaningful. But it was just a smile after all. During the rest of the class, she offered him no more and spoke to him only out of necessity—neither singling him out, nor avoiding him.

He was not sorry that he had made the decision to see her for one final time; it was gratifying to see that she had been returned unharmed and was continuing with her life just as before. She would no doubt throw herself back into her old activities, return to her friends and meet some adequately suitable Muggle man to marry. Their children may turn out to be magical. Some day he may be teaching potions to the offspring of Hermione Granger. Would she remember her magic then?

The students filed out at the end of the lesson, and Snape wished he could go with them. He was aware that a one-to-one meeting would be more gruelling than just being a silent participant in her class. As the moment approached, he knew he couldn't face the proximity of her standing by his side and going through the work he had missed. He couldn't bear to inhale her fragrance or feel the inadvertent brush of her arm against his. And what if she leaned too close and he felt the tingle of her hair against his face? It would be better to annihilate the chance of any accidental contact—he didn't want to know what a caress would feel like; the awareness of its sweetness would be too painful. It would be easier just to tell her he would not be able to attend any more of her classes—she would likely be relieved to hear the news that her least favourite student was leaving for good.

Her expression as she watched him from her seat was disconcerting. He did not stir from his own, unwilling to close the gap between them, until finally she made a move and walked around her desk. She leaned against it, gripping the French text book in both hands as if she was afraid of dropping it. He waited for her to speak, but it seemed as if she was doing the same—the two of them locked in a silent battle of suspension. He tried to analyse her expression; it seemed—angry wasn't the right word, but she appeared more moved than a teacher should be towards a student who has merely skipped a few lessons.

She was the first to cave. 'I thought you weren't going to come,' she breathed.

Snape became acutely conscious of his own movements and breaths. He tried not to meet her eye as he replied. 'I have paid for the full course, as I explained. However, I'm afraid this will be my last class. Circumstances... that is... I am unable to continue.'

'But you've paid,' she replied.

'I won't be asking for a refund.'

Rachael stared at him until he felt unable to look away any longer. 'We were making such good progress.'

'And I am grateful for all you have taught me, but I'm afraid it can't be helped,' he replied.

She turned her back to him suddenly and slammed the heavy book down on the desk top so that the loud thud reverberated around the room.

She turned back to face him, her face showing all the signs of fury and exasperation. 'Merlin! I could slap Harry bloody Potter sometimes!' she yelled. 'I know he meant well, but why can't he just leave things alone? We were doing okay, weren't we?'

Snape stared at her incredulously. It was Rachael's form he was looking at: her face, her hair, her voice, but the words she spoke, the sentiment and the meaning coming from her lips could not be comprehended. This was not Rachael, the woman who was just discovering her powers, nor was it Rachael, the fledgling witch who had been admitted to St Mungo's and found to be a hopeless case.

This was Hermione Granger.

Snape took some moments to process her words: her understanding of the wizarding world, her knowledge of Potter—and even more significantly, her annoyance with them.

'They Obliviated you!' he said when he finally found the power of speech.

'They tried,' she scoffed. 'But that Healer was pathetic. I don't think his heart was in it to be honest.'

He spoke carefully. 'Potter told me that Malfoy was unable to perform Finite Obliviate.'

Hermione sighed. 'Oh, Lucius Malfoy was in a terrible state. I almost felt sorry for him. But even if he hadperformed it well enough, it would have made no difference.'

Snape felt as if his brain was about to explode with the effort of making sense of this new turn of events. He had expected her to be lost: powerless, impotent and clueless, but instead, it seemed that shehad been the one with all the secrets.

'An explanation please,' he demanded.

Hermione had the grace to look at him with some degree of discomfort. 'Lucius Malfoy didn't wipe my memory in the first place.'

'Not possible. Draco confessed. He gave evidence to the Wizengamot.'

Hermione smiled. 'He kept his word then.'

'His word?'

She nodded. 'Lucius didn't do it. Draco did.'

Snape was beginning to wonder if this was some elaborate dream he was caught up in. He had been taking more Sleep Potion than usual lately. But he could never have dreamed the look in her eyes—that compelling mixture of uncertainty, anticipation and determination. Yet, little made sense. If Lucius had not been able to reverse the spell, why was Hermione Granger standing before him as if the last ten years had been a mere blip?

He tried to organise her words into some semblance of logic. 'Draco?'

Hermione paused as if deciding how to proceed. 'I told him he owed me... well, all of us: Harry and Ron, too. We saved him from the Fiendfyre—he would have been dead. Life debt and all that.'

Realisation hit him like a Stunner to the chest. 'You wanted your memories to be altered?'

Hermione walked towards the window and looked through the half-closed blinds. 'I'd had enough,' she said softly. 'The carnage! The carnage after the battle. I walked around the castle and all I could see was death. Friends, teachers, students... so many dead. And I wanted to get away from it all.' She sighed and kept her eyes focused on the outside world, gathering her thoughts as if she was preparing a confession for herself alone. 'I wandered off just to think and get some breathing space. I wanted somewhere that felt safe and happy, so I walked down to Hagrid's hut. That's when I saw the Malfoys. I was in a bit of a state—probably not thinking too clearly—I thought they were going to destroy that too. And something snapped. I thought: no more destruction. I didn't care anymore so I just hurtled off after them.'

'And you found that they were about to use a Portkey!'

Hermione turned to look at him. 'You know?'

'We know. Once Lucius was put on trial, Draco told us of the events of the evening.'

'Is that how you came to find me?'

Snape nodded. 'Until then, you were believed to be dead in the explosion along with the Malfoys. No one questioned it. Part of your wand was found, and that was perceived as clear evidence.'

Hermione walked back to her desk and took out her wand from her bag—his gift to her. 'I never wanted to be found. Draco Disapparated me to some Muggle town in France, and I thought, why not just stay here? It seemed so peaceful and free from all the horror of our world. Suddenly, I knew what I wanted: not to be a witch any more. I told Draco that I didn't want to be taken to the French wizarding society as they had planned, to be left among our kind and taken back to Hogwarts. I told him to alter my memories and leave me with the Muggles. He was always good at Charms.'

Snape stood up and paced the room, trying to arrange his thoughts and grasp the significance of her account. 'Then why did Draco tell us that Lucius had done it?'

Hermione tightened her hold on her wand as if it gave her comfort. She shrugged. 'He had made me a promise,' she said, 'not to give me away. But that was before Lucius was stupid enough to get caught. Perhaps it was an attempt, on Draco's part, to keep his promise to me and to help his father: I imagine there would be more sympathy towards Lucius at his trial if it was discovered that he had bothered to Obliviate me and leave me somewhere safe. And if everyone believed Lucius was the one who altered my memories, there would be no question of me being found and restored: Lucius in Azkaban couldn't do it, or so I thought. It gave me more time. I had intended to stay in France—I used to holiday there with my parents as a child. If I had stayed there, perhaps I would never have been found. Of course, Draco forgot how persistent Harry and Ron are.'

'Then you never wanted to return to the wizarding world?'

'I was happy enough.'

'Until I came along!'

She looked at him directly for the first time since her narrative. 'For a while. But... something was always missing. As soon as you walked into my class, it felt like you were the missing part. Not that I could have put that into words then.' She turned her attention to her wand again, several of those soft tendrils concealing her face. 'You triggered my magic. It seems inconceivable that I was scared of it at first. But you were there to guide me.'

Snape watched the woman before him and tried to conceive the possibility that Hermione Granger had chosen to give up her magic and live as a Muggle rather than remain with her friends. She seemed to guess his thoughts as she smiled at him softly.

'I was desperate,' she said. 'I couldn't bear it all anymore and I knew what was to come—the turmoil and anguish of rebuilding and coming to terms with everything. The aftermath, the recriminations – it still wasn't over just because Voldemort was dead. Harry had revealed your true loyalties, and the realisation of what you had sacrificed... ' She looked away unable to complete her thought out loud. 'And after all that, after all you did, you were dead...' It seemed as if her own words had distressed her, because she looked up again with a start and repeated, 'You were dead!'

'So were you,' he said, relieved to know that he did not have to have a conversation with her in which he must once again explain his reasons for killing Dumbledore and betraying them all.

'Touché,' she replied. 'But how did you—survive?'

'Another story. We are talking about you. There are many things which still make no sense to me. Why did you deceive the Healer in St Mungo's and your friends?'

Hermione's face flushed, and once more she seemed to be battling with the question of what to say and how much to reveal. She chose to deflect his question by changing the subject. 'When you didn't turn up for the last two French classes, I thought... '

'Potter told me that you had regressed, forgotten your magic again. I took that to mean an end to all of this. I believed there was no chance of you regaining your powers again.'

'You were going to leave me?' She replied, her voice stricken with anxiety.

His heart hammered in his chest. 'I needed to consider what to do next. My appearance may have been upsetting for you.'

She took a step towards him then changed her mind and stopped. 'You not being here was upsetting.'

Snape could only stare at her in surprise. She seemed so agitated—disconcerted—her fingers would not be still as she restlessly threaded her wand through them. She didn't seem to know what to do with her gaze: direct it at him, her hands, the floor? He supposed he should make some suitable reply, something that reflected how exultant her words made him feel, but he could think of nothing appropriate.

Hermione seemed to draw some courage from somewhere as she took a step closer and continued. 'I thought I'd messed up. You didn't come and I thought, what if he never comes, what will I do?'

The unexpected sound of a man whistling and his accompanying footsteps was suddenly heard from the corridor beyond the classroom. Without a moment's hesitation, Hermione pointed her wand at the door and cast a string of hasty Repellent Charms to enable their privacy.

Snape raised his eyebrows. 'You really are a fast learner, Hermione.'

'It came back to me really quickly once my memory returned in full. We used those Charms a lot when we were on the run.'

When it dawned on him that she had regained her memory well before she had let on, he questioned her on the timing of her recovery.

'By the lake. When you cast Geminio on the leaves—so beautifully by the way,' she replied, smiling fondly at the memory.

At once, he realised that all their subsequent get-togethers had been a charade. Their after-class meetings, his patient explanation of the nature of magic, his demonstrations, gentle encouragement—even the moment when he had told her she was a witch—all of it was pretence. She had already known. The sudden insight caused a maelstrom of reactions, though he showed little of his turmoil as he watched her with increasing uncertainty. He felt some betrayal at her deception and disappointment at her pretext, which naturally led to mistrust of her intentions. Yet what of those? What of her intentions? What could have possibly prompted her to concoct an elaborate ruse of deceit, feigned knowledge, pretence at ignorance, and to willingly spend time with him as her teacher? Perhaps it was hope he should feel, not disillusionment.

'And you never thought to mention it?' he asked in the measured tone he used when he felt his emotions too overwhelming to be allowed a voice.

Hermione sank into a nearby chair, leaning her elbows onto the table. 'You would have taken me back to them,' she murmured. 'That's why you were here. I realised that the morning after the lake when my memories all came tumbling back. You were the one sent to get me. I couldn't figure out why it was you and not Harry or Ron—and I couldn't understand why I wasn't just dragged off to St Mungo's straight away. I know now, of course,' she added, looking up at him attentively, like a witness on the stand. 'The softly, softly approach—the danger of it all going wrong and me turning into some head case.'

He walked closer to her and stared down at the waves of hair now fallen from their clasp and tumbling down in a coppery shroud around her neck and shoulders. He very much wanted to reach out a hand to brush the hair from her face, but he contented himself with observation and folded his arms stoically. 'Would going back have been so terrible? Surely you must have missed your friends?'

Hermione looked up at him and gave him a rueful smile. 'But I would have been nothing more than Hermione Granger, annoying Gryffindor and irritating know-it-all, to you.'

The feeling that this whole situation could not be genuine occurred to him again. She was speaking as if her actions—her deceit and manipulation—had been for the sole purpose of remaining in his company and for his approval only. It seemed too great a leap for the realisation that now seemed so obvious: all along, they had both wanted the same thing.

She continued her explanation. 'I love Harry and Ron and all the Weasleys. We have meant so much to each other. But that life is over. They have moved on. Harry is married now. There was a time when I thought Ron and I would be together, but it was just teenage stuff—nothing more. I expect he's moved on too. I liked being Rachael Saunders, trainee witch. I don't want to go back; I want to stay here.' She sighed as if the inevitable must now be said regardless of the consequences. 'With you.'

Snape could see that expression in her eyes again: doubt and hope and resolution looked him squarely in the face and it was all he could do to refrain from lowering his head to kiss the lips which had spoken words he could never have dared to hope for. Yet still he could not be certain of her intentions. Perhaps it was only magic she coveted, and his ability to develop her skills.

'You don't need a teacher, Hermione.'

Hermione stood up. They were only feet apart now. Too close. He could smell her again, and it was intoxicating. 'I know,' she whispered. 'But does that mean you and I can't still be friends? I'd rather give up my magic again than lose you.'

His mind had finally allowed reason to depart. Had she just told him that she didn't care about her life, her friends, or her magic—only his friendship? It seemed such a short time ago that he could never have contemplated being anything to Hermione Granger but a teacher of potions, ruthless detractor, or undercover reconnaissance. Yet now, here he was, feeling disappointed that it was only friendship on offer. How quickly the receptive mind can give flight to fantasies of the most extraordinary imaginings. Over the past months he had come to notice her smile, her fragrance, the way she walked, flicked her hair, laughed, and scowled. He had noticed the way her eyes blinked rapidly when she was suppressing an emotion, the turn of her wrist when she flicked her wand, the ever-so-slightly lob-sided grin when he made her laugh, and way her hair fell into her eyes when she was engrossed in a book. He had thought of all those things when he was not with her and found pleasure in them when he was. If she wanted his friendship, it was hers.

Seize the day, Severus. Rosmerta's words suddenly came to the forefront of his mind as if she was standing beside him and whispering them in his ear.

Snape was not an eloquent man when it came to confessions of love or veneration. He could never verbalise how much she had come to mean to him in so short a time. If he couldn't say the words out loud, then he must articulate his feelings in some other way. He hardly recognised his actions as his own as he stepped forward and closed the gap to mere inches. He half expected her to step back—to be daunted by his proximity, but she remained perfectly still, tilting her head up to look at him, a look of grave expectancy in eyes the colour of chestnuts.

'Why would you think of giving up your magic for me?' His fingers had found their way to her hair. He pushed the fallen strands back from her face and breathed deeply when the expected recoil did not come. Instead, she half closed her eyes and leaned into his touch.

'I lived without it once before; I could do it again. But not without you. I don't want that.'

He felt her hand over his, her warm breath on his jaw; it stirred a long suppressed craving for physical contact with another human being—the pleasurable feel of the touch of a woman, the heady sensation of flesh on flesh. Somehow they had moved even closer; the only thing to do now seemed to be to lower his head and touch her lips with his. The edges of reason began to disappear, driven out by the onslaught of desire. He could not at that moment say for sure if it was a fleeting lapse in sanity or a moment of clarity which forced him to act. He only knew that the moment of action between standing before her, watching her parted lips, to pressing against her and feeling her mouth with his, was so unclear that he could not be sure how it happened. She tasted of hope, faith, destiny and fulfilment, and he had never tasted anything so sweet in his life.

'If I had an ounce of integrity I'd tell you to run,' he said when their lips finally parted.

'Why would I do that?'

'I have no idea; I seem to have forgotten my scruples.' He kissed her again. 'Something about the enormous age difference and my obnoxious disposition,' he murmured, kissing the fleshy part of her palm as she played with his hair.

She reached up to kiss him again—softly at first, before playfully biting his lower lip. 'You are obnoxious,' she agreed. 'But as you're such a surprisingly good kisser, I'm willing to overlook it.' She laughed at his furrowing brow. 'And it goes without saying that you're brave and clever and make me very happy.'

He buried his overly large nose into her hair as he had dreamed of doing on countless occasions. 'I suppose I'll have to call you Hermione now,' he said.

Severus Snape had resigned himself quite willingly to the fact that Hermione Granger—the woman he now spent most of his days with and recently some of his nights—wanted nothing more to do with the wizarding world. At first, she was adamant that she would never return. He had been right all along though: curiosity and a craving to see her old friends eventually got the better of her. Within two months, she had taken her first trip back—a tearful, but joyful reunion with Harry, Ron, a host of Weasleys and Professor McGonagall. If they were surprised by the unlikely courtship of their lost friend and the wizard sent to fetch her, they kept it to themselves for the sake of peace-keeping and harmony. The proprietor of the Three Broomsticks, however, always reserved her best wine for her favourite customers and was the first to raise a toast on their return:

'To Severus and Hermione and their everlasting happiness.'