The wedding went off beautifully, as that sort of thing always does. Where the two werewolves might have been cast out before, they were pitied or even championed. After all, Harry Potter's word could not be doubted, once the ghost had been ascertained to be truly him, and the Daily Prophet had chosen to put a good spin on the entire matter. The only person who truly enjoyed the publicity was Arabella Figg, who had gone so long watching Harry without a word of thanks. She was naturally a brisk, capable woman, and she used her interviews to best advantage. "Someday, Arabella will be Minister of Magic - you watch," McGonagall commented.
Elspeth was a great disappointment to Hermione. While the girl was kind enough - and Hermione did think of her as a 'girl,' though she was older - she lacked something essential. Their politics were different, for one, as Hermione had never been anything but a bleeding-heart liberal; furthermore, she seemed to see the world through rose colored glasses. It was an ability to be envied, but that did not mean it made her pleasant to be around. She was clearly besotted with Lupin, and he was quite in love with her, so there was nothing that could be said about it.
The reception was held in The Leaky Cauldron, where all the windows and doors were flung open and the tables spilled out into the street to make one big party. Inside, a dance floor had been cleared. Madame Rosmerta tended the bar and made sure there were enough strawberries and cake for everyone who wanted some, whistling the march from Lohengrin. There were so many people that it was almost claustrophobic, and they all seemed to have different things to talk to her about. Sirius Black, Professor Sprout, all the Weasleys. They came in a parade. The one person she enjoyed seeing was Dame Betsey Kneen, now out of her disguise as Professor Trelawney.
"The Dark Lord is truly gone now," she told Hermione, "And there is nothing more to hide. I was posing as Trelawney because of a prophecy I made. It was the first one that I ever knew would come true. I was in the middle of a dinner party."
"What was the prophecy?"
She smiled, leaning on her ebony stick. "I said, 'The boy who lived will live two times and half again.' And now you see that it did come to pass."
Elspeth came and brought Kneen away, then, to meet someone she had known at school; Hermione was immediately cornered by Angelina Johnson, who led her about, introducing her to people and talking very quickly about everything that had happened since she had left school. Eventually she stood on tiptoes and scanned the room. Snape was gone.
Muttering something about getting another drink to the person talking to her - someone she had never met before, who she gathered was one of Elspeth's relations - she headed for the door, but as she stepped outside a freckled hand stopped her. Ron.
"Why didn't you owl me?" he asked, sounding hurt.
"I didn't feel like it. I was really lost, Ron. It's been strange." Now that she was confronted with him again, there did not seem to be much to say. "I know you always said you loved me, but -"
She remembered the way his eyes fluttered closed, how his skin was so white that blue smudges appeared where veins ran close to the surface. It was the same, only a little older, a little wiser. "What we say isn't always true. It was Harry all along, wasn't it? Harry who kept us together, Harry who made it happen - that we thought we were in love, that is."
"You've seen him?"
"Yes - he seems happy, happier than I can remember. He doesn't blame me at all, even though I couldn't do anything to help him - so. I think maybe it's time that we try to get along without the vacuita." The change in subject was quite abrupt, but Hermione could trace his logic. Harry was back, was there to keep their friendship in place once more, and now perhaps Ron was strong enough to try and deal with his problems on his own.
The hair on the back of her arms stood up as she lifted the vacuita, looked carefully at its black cover. That little book had caused so many things that she was unsure if she truly wanted to let it go.
But you can't let it go. Not with the geas still in place.
Instead of telling Ron the whole sordid story, starting from where it really began and not from the place the penny papers started in on, she nodded. "I think maybe it is."
It was simple enough to remove the spell. They didn't even need to call in McGonagall to do it. Ron simply pressed the tip of his wand to the book where it hung between her breasts and said, "Finite Vacuitas Incantatum."
As though a switch had been flipped somewhere, Hermione's emotions changed. Her mind felt lighter, somehow, less burdened by times past and things future. Ron, in contrast, simply sighed. "Better?" he asked.
"I haven't felt this way since I was - I don't know when," she admitted. "For you?"
"I was happier before, I think, but it always felt like there was a piece missing. Like when you remember someone's name, but nothing else about them. Now it's back." Suddenly he pressed his lips together. "I should stay for Remus, but -"
"He'll understand, if you need to talk to Harry. Go on."
With a last, brave smile and a soft whoosh of air, he Disapparated. Instead of turning back to the party, Hermione walked through the space where he had been and into the quickly falling night; Lupin and Elspeth would not Apparate away for several hours yet. Not many people were outside, but there was one, a dark figure walking up the path to the castle. She followed, knowing it was Snape.
It was nearly a mile back to the castle, and the walk took some time. Surely Snape was aware that she was following him, but he didn't react to her presence, and she stayed some distance behind. The quiet fields were somewhat comforting, grass waving gently in the moonlight. She took the time to contemplate the fact that the little black book she could not remove was nothing more than a book, now. If she opened it, the pages would be blank and empty, and she could write on them. There was nothing to fear there, no memories that might yet destroy her. Her own memories were faded, now, black-and-white rather than the vibrant living color they had been before. But isn't that why memories are so dear to us? We forget things, and what we have left is all the more precious?
"If you wish to walk with me, Miss Granger, you are welcome to," offered Snape, "although there are no Death Eaters here, and we need not keep up that particular charade."
"I didn't find it so unpleasant," she responded, hurrying to catch up.
He smiled, those eyes she had once described as beetle-black glinting in the moonlight - not unpleasantly but merely as any person's eyes might. They were in the formal garden, then, and she was reminded of how he stalked through at the Yule Ball, blasting unfortunate couples. Then she had seen it from the windows; it was different to be out in the night air, walking in silence, with the dark bulk of the building solid and sure near the path.
"Miss Granger." His voice was soft and dangerous, a voice she associated with losing points. "I fear that you are out after hours."
"I do believe I am." He was only teasing, lighthearted, and she appreciated the attempt, but it was clearly forced. "And so are you. What's on your mind - insomnia?"
A bitter laugh. "No, I just came from a very scintillating party. The créme de la créme of wizarding society was there. Unfortunately, I found myself unable to enjoy it. And if I'd spoken to you -"
"Sirius would have said something. He said something to me anyway, about how I finally was just as famous as Harry - but I had to share it with you. Ron didn't say anything."
"I don't care about Weasley."
"You'd have me believe that you don't care about anyone, and that's not true, or why did you leave Hogwarts in the first place?" Her tone was more pointed than she had intended it to be, even a little hurt. Snape was silent. "I missed you these past few days. I'd become accustomed to you."
It was a moment of passing judgement. It was a moment of fear, almost, that she had said something wrong and gone too far and spoiled whatever might be possible. But she felt a hand on her shoulder, felt him shift closer in order to speak more privately, and knew she had not been wrong. "Or perhaps - you'd merely grown numb."
"No. No, accustomed is the right word." And she smiled as sweetly as she could, and opened the door for him, mock-bowing as they came into the entrance hall. Up the stairs, silent. Through the passages, silent. The portrait of Jeanne d'Arc recognized Snape and swung open at his approach.
Hermione was unsure why she had followed him, but it was not a time to be cautious. Do something rash, she thought to herself. You've proved you're capable of it by picking up and leaving. Now follow through on it.
"Wait." He was half-in and half-out of his rooms, paused in the doorway, already moving to hang up his cloak. Instead he turned back to her expectantly, and in that one moment of indecision he saw her thoughts. When she kissed him, as softly as she could, he did not back away. And just as she was about to turn and go, he grabbed her wrist, and stopped her from leaving.
"I hope I have not misunderstood you," he said quite softly, his hand touching her cheek, smoothing hair away from her face. Her arms twined about his neck, and she did her best to show him that he had not mistaken her. Such a strange thing, she thought, as she felt his lips brush her temple in an almost affectionate gesture. Such a very, very strange thing. But there was very little thinking involved as they stumbled back into his room, conscious of kissing in the hall like students; and while Snape may have been thinking something as his hands skimmed her body and his mouth left bruises on her skin, she doubted it.
The morning dawned quite pink and orange, the sun casting odd shadows in the room. Hermione woke up with a jolt when her eyes flew open to smooth white limbs holding her close. It was Snape: and furthermore, it was Snape in the quarters he had taken over at Hogwarts. Strange, she thought again. It was the same idea she'd had in her head since she first saw him, standing on the next balcony over. Especially strange that they were spooned together in a way she had always associated with romance novels. Especially strange that he was still asleep, and she did not feel like slipping away, even if she could have.
His rooms were white plastered, with archways instead of doors, and appeared very Mediterranean. There were not many personal effects lying about, beyond some books. The style did not seem to suit him particularly, although she liked the sunny brightness a great deal.
"Miss Granger," Snape said sleepily. "A good morning to you."
"I think we've progressed a bit past Miss Granger," she replied. Even without looking it was easy to tell that his manner was becoming more guarded.
"I'd like to think so."
They were silent, then, curled up together without an idea as to how to go forward. Hermione imagined that his thoughts were something like hers: surprised, worried a little, not wanting to make a misstep.
"May I see where the Dark Mark was?" she finally asked, her curiosity getting the better of her. It was something she had wanted to do since the day at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, but she always thought asking would be a mistake. Now it seemed appropriate, though why, she couldn't say.
"I find I couldn't deny you anything, at the moment," he said in a tone that was almost droll. "If you had asked me before - but that is neither here nor there. Yes, you may see it, not that you haven't already."
Where a black skull had once grinned on the arm he presented, there was now nothing more than a shiny, whitish blemish. It seemed that the quicksilver-stuff had left its mark. Running a finger over it, she noted that the skin was smooth, not raised like Harry's curse scar. She would have examined it further if Snape had not suddenly taken in a sharp breath and looked up.
"Around your neck, Hermione. Your necklace -"
"-isn't there," she finished. She cast her eyes about the room. The little black book and chain stood out against the silk stockings she had thrown aside so hastily. Pulling on the shirt Snape had discarded earlier - now that she was presented with the idea of being naked in front of him during the day, she was less enthusiastic - she picked it up to see what had happened. It was the same as ever. "'Geasa are little more than an order given and bound to a person or object, as everything can be bound with the correct understanding of its nature. This leads to the natural conclusion that everything can be unbound, even a geas,'" she recited, her mind making the sort of connection Harry and Ron had always valued her for. "Ron removed the spells on the vacuita last night. When Minerva laid the geasa on me, they weren't tied into the necklace. They were tied into the vacuita. And now that it isn't a vacuita anymore, the geasa don't apply."
If she had expected a feeling of happiness, she was disappointed. Instead she felt satisfied, the puzzles complete and spread out before her. Logic, not magic, she had told Harry in their first year. Logic was her gift, and perhaps it was a better gift than any aptitude for Transfiguration or Herbology could be. With logic, she would be able to think through almost any situation -
"I always knew you were something of a showoff," Snape said in a tone which reminded her much more of the classroom than of the previous night. "There is one thing you've missed, though - one thing I can claim to have thought of myself."
"Riddle me this: Why would the Dark Lord have chosen to go to Sacramento, California - a city of no importance in the wizarding sense, a city with very little to recommend it in terms of magical or Muggle culture, when he had his pick of the Malfoy properties?"
Her suspicion that he had always enjoyed knowing things other people did not was right. He kept her in suspense for the entire day. The castle was slow to rouse after so many of the teachers had been at the reception the night before, but rouse it did, for the first staff meeting and the final preparations for the new term. It had been planned for some time that that day they were to return to Sacramento to put their apartments there in order and decide whether they would stay on at the Center for Alchemical and Potions Research (Arabella Figg had nearly forced them to, pointing out that there was little reason to shilly-shally about with the matter).
Silently they walked out to Hogsmeade and Apparated from there directly to Hermione's apartment. It was just as it had been when they had left it, without so much as a covering of dust to indicate that it had been uninhabited. It was a reminder of how short a time they had really been gone. Little more than a week, it was, but so much had happened!
Sitting on the faded old couch, Hermione finally had to think out what her future would hold. There was not much for her. She had not replied to her Oxford acceptance letter, and anyway her money was gone, used up when she fled England. She could stay with the Center, but it was a job that she knew she would grow to hate: too little time for study and innovation, far too much time doing menial tasks. The Weasleys couldn't take her in; friendship only goes so far. Jobs in England were hard to come by, if you had your N.E.W.T.s but no apprenticeship, and by this time the apprenticeships would have been filled.
"I'm leaving the Center," Snape remarked, when she had been silent a long time. "Figg is resigning the position of Potions mistress at the staff meeting today. I'm the only true master of the art they'll be able to find at such short notice."
"That's good," she responded blankly.
"Mnemosyne Vector asked me if I thought you would be interested in apprenticing with her. She wishes to retire soon. She's got great-grandchildren now, and she says she'd like to spend time with them."
It was the best idea she could have hoped for. She decided to apprentice to Vector very quickly, and afterwards they completed their errands quite briskly. Soon they stood in front of the Center's headquarters, a small house in a nice part of town, and had nothing left to do but return to Hogwarts.
Hermione was about to Apparate, but Snape stopped her. "Aren't you going to ask me why You-Know-Who came here, Granger? Do you want to investigate - to see for yourself the place he stayed?"
"It's close by?"
"Not even a block away. Lucius Malfoy brought me there once." From the look on his face, it had not been a pleasant visit. He pointed over the low rooftops of the houses: now that she looked, she could see that one of them was marked by a blue glow, the sign that the Aurors had condemned a house. No Muggle could see that mark. It was a large place; the Malfoys must have knocked down several of the small tract homes to build it, she saw, as they walked towards it. The gate was closed, but Snape opened it with a quick Alohomora. They slipped inside.
As they walked up to it, it was clear it had been built to appear like one of the missions the Spanish had made up and down the California coast. Though the doors were locked, it was not warded. The furniture had already been moved out. It must have been entirely cleaned and scrubbed, because there was no evidence of inhabitation anywhere. The rooms were large but eerily empty, the plate glass of the windows that faced the river reflecting nothing but bare, creamy wall.
Snape led her through the house, backtracking when he found dead ends, for a while before they found a back door. The sun hung low in the sky behind them; floating down the river, Muggles were loud and raucous. Late-blooming gardenias hugged the house and tiny blue flowers grew all over the riverbanks, entangled with grass and weeds. "I thought you'd been keeping up with Ars Alchemica since you were a fifth year," he said disapprovingly. "Your famed mind should have figured out why this property was so attractive by now. It's the flowers, of course."
"Spatium blossoms? The uses of spatium blossoms - It's used in some potions to strengthen the attachment of one's soul to one's body."
"Algernon Figg wrote that, ironically enough. In those potions it must be fresh and natural-grown, not kept with any magic. This is the only place it grows. Even this stuff is ruined now, from the Aurors' spell-sign."
"Then when we saw him, he hadn't had any of the potion for several days. He seemed weak."
"He was far weaker than I'd seen him before, though it's said he once had to be nursed back to health. He couldn't have performed the Killing Curse."
"A pleasant thing to know. If only we'd known it then, I would have been much happier," Hermione noted. Then she Apparated, forcing him to follow quickly after.
At Hogwarts they were welcomed back. Things went as planned, with Hermione speaking to Professor Vector and Snape being asked to become Potions master and head of Slytherin once more. Something had changed during the day, though. The mysteries were all solved, now. Everything was laid out as it ought to be, and Harry had even returned. She and Ron were doing what they had always been expected to do. The castle was as safe and impregnable as it had always felt, even during the siege, even when all seemed lost.
But one thing was not safe and secure, and that was Snape. She had been foolish to expect any more than he had given her; it was a wonder she had even been allowed that comfort. They had spent a week in each others' company at most. Neither would have chosen it, had they been offered that choice at the time. Once she left his presence, she was uncertain whether she would be welcomed back. She had slept with him. That was something she had taken lightly at the time, but was taking less and less lightly the more she thought about it.
There was something which had grown very quickly in her: an affection for him, perhaps. One could not go quite so far as to call it love. It was nothing like what she had felt for Ron, giving in to a long-expected confession, when they sat together with Harry and hoped that the wards would hold up one more day. Instead it was something that caught her in unlikely moments. She would see him out of the corner of her eye and automatically turn her head to follow his movement. His actions were the same as ever, and yet he was not so bad tempered as she had thought he was.
None of her things had been left in his rooms; she had no pretext to go and see him.
"Miss Hermione," a voice came from behind her chair, but it was not who she had been hoping. Instead, Dobby scurried up to stand on the table in front of her. "Dobby is being told to tell you that Professor Snape is wondering if you would like to continue your study of advanced Potions. He is saying to Dobby that you should come to see him now, Miss, if you want, to discuss it. And he is giving Dobby this note for you."
I seeketh only self to please, to bind another to my delight. Perhaps I shall make a Potions Mistress from you yet, given time - I am not averse to your company.
"I suppose that's as close to a declaration of -" Love? " - affection as I'll ever get," she said to nobody in particular. "Thank you, Dobby. I'll go see him now."
"The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is the meaning of fiction!"
- Oscar Wilde "The Importance of Being Earnest"