"I can make it from here," he said, and at his words the House Elf at his right hand instantly disappeared. He felt his way along the corridor, his long fingers barely brushing the rough stone wall until it gave way to nothingness, and then, when he probed a bit further into the recess, he felt the heavy wooden door. Dismissing the Elf was less an act of confidence than of pride. He could always summon his escort again if he was needed, but he preferred to arrive alone and unaided. He pushed the door open and stepped across the threshold, automatically turning toward the slight rustling sound in the direction of Poppy Pomfrey's desk.
"Right on time, then," Poppy said, moving to greet him. "Well, there's a first time for everything they say."
"Just get on with it," her patient snapped, waving in the direction of his face with a sharp gesture of irritation.
"You, Severus Snape, are about to take Albus's place as the most trying patient it has ever been my misfortune to treat." Poppy's words were stern, but her hands were gentle as she guided him to a chair. "Sit here while I get my wand. We can do this right here if you'd like."
"Oh, good, Severus. I was afraid I would miss the big moment." Dumbledore's voice was like the soft rustle of old parchment, and his slippered feet scuffed the carpet as he made his way across Poppy's office.
"You should be in bed," Snape said, turning toward the sound.
"I am still…your superior," Dumbledore answered, pausing for breath. "I'll thank you to remember that."
"Sit, Headmaster," Poppy said, sounding exasperated. "You really shouldn't be up and about yet."
"I'm fine, Poppy. See to Severus, if you please."
"I'm about to," she assured him. "All right, Severus. I'm going to remove the outer bandages."
He felt her hands in his hair, unfastening the tight band of cloth that had circled his head for the past week. The pressure of the bandage was less and less as she unwound it until finally it was gone completely, and he felt vulnerable in its absence, as if something vital might now spill out. He automatically reached up to touch the sides of his face as the cool air rushed against the freshly exposed skin. Poppy swatted his hands away.
"Now," she said, "I'm going to remove the pad from the right eye." The outer bandage had covered thick circular pads over both of his eyes – pads that were soaked in a potion which would hopefully restore his sight. The pads and the potion and the tender skin had become as one, and he hissed involuntarily as her fingers dug into his eyelids as she pried the pad away. "Sorry," she said, and then he felt her cover the eye gently with her fingers.
"What are you doing?" he asked, and in his nervousness it was impossible for him to attain his usual acid tones.
"Nox," she muttered, by way of answer. "That's better. All right, try to open it. Slowly, now."
She needed have added the last. He had to strain against the gummy residue of the potion, which had sealed his eye shut. Finally he felt it crack and give way, and he broke out in a cold sweat of relief when he saw the smudge of gold that was the single candle Poppy had left burning. Other shapes began to emerge…the desk first, heaped with books and parchment, Poppy's owl napping on her familiar perch, and, when he turned his head, the frail figure of Albus Dumbledore seated next to him.
"You look like hell," he said, looking Dumbledore up and down.
Poppy gave an exclamation of delight while Dumbledore chuckled weakly.
"Perhaps we should have Poppy replace the bandages," he suggested.
"Thank you, no," Snape demurred. "All right, Poppy, let's have done with this. I have work to do." His voice was strong again, bolstered by the confidence that came from healing, from knowing that he would leave this room whole again…himself again. He could find his way to the dungeons without being dragged along by that dratted Elf. He could once again begin brewing the potions Poppy needed to treat the ward full of patients in the next room. He could – perhaps – even begin to explore life outside of Voldemort's shadow.
Poppy's fingers pried at the other eye, but this time he bore the discomfort without complaint, anxious to be off. Once the pad had been removed, he reached up impatiently with his own fingers to break the seal holding his eyelids together. He felt the slight tearing sensation again, and then his index finger plunged past the first knuckle into a pool of moist warmth, and he knew that something was wrong…terribly wrong…and the mess was sliding down his face as he felt his eyelid go slack.
"Oh!" Poppy cried, reaching hurriedly for a flannel and pressing it to his face. "Severus!"
"What! What happened?" he demanded, though in truth he already knew and had known, from the moment he had pried his eyelid open.
"The damage must have been too severe," she said, sounding uncharacteristically frantic. "I'm sorry, Severus. I really thought…"
"I'm sorry, Severus," Dumbledore echoed gently. "Poppy, what can you do for him?"
"The potion has damaged the eye beyond repair," she said, managing to find her professional demeanour once again. "I'm afraid that what's left of it will have to be removed. It is fortunate that he has the use of his right eye. Once he's used to seeing out of just that one, he'll be a good candidate for a magical eye."
"No," Snape said firmly. "Do what you have to do now, and that'll be the end of it."
"I said no," he snapped. "I'm not an Auror. I've no need to see out of the back of my head now that Voldemort's gone. One eye is sufficient for my needs. Now get on with what you have to do and let me do the same."
She nodded, knowing better, apparently, than to try to argue, and with a single incantation she removed what remained of his left eye and sealed the lid over the empty socket. It gave him an even more sinister appearance than he'd had previously. His features had never been pleasant, but at least they'd been balanced. Now, he looked positively menacing, with one eye missing and the other hardened into a fierce glare.
"Thank you, Poppy," he said coolly, rising and inclining his head a fraction. "Albus, I suggest you return to your bed."
"Severus…" Dumbledore began.
"I have a great deal to do, Albus."
"Very well. I'll see you later." The elderly wizard acquiesced with a smile that was probably meant to be reassuring, but one eye was sufficient for Snape to see that Dumbledore had lost whatever strength he had once had. Although his death might not be imminent, it was clear that Albus Dumbledore would never again serve as Headmaster of Hogwarts School. It was one truth too many.
He left Poppy's office quickly and hurried away from the Infirmary. All the magic in the world couldn't seem to purge the place of the smell of medicinal potions and the stench of death and decay. For years, Poppy Pomfrey's corner of Hogwarts had been used mostly for treating the odd broken bone and dispensing potions for such common complaints as headaches and menstrual cramps. Now it was a field hospital, and even Snape had to give Poppy credit for rising to the challenges of the past week. Of course, a number of the patients had been discharged, and a few had been transferred to St. Mungo's for more advanced care than Poppy could provide, but the ward was still half-full of students and staff who had been debilitated in the final battle. Some would pull through…only some.
He intended to go straight to his laboratory, to put his hands to work doing the only thing he could do under the circumstances. In the lab, he could tell himself that he was helping Poppy, helping the patients in her care, without having to actually see and smell and touch them. He always had preferred to work behind the scenes, and this crisis would be no exception. He hurried down the stone corridor, his slow, shuffling steps of the past week replaced now with his usual long stride. He rounded a familiar corner and stopped short, sucking in a sudden breath.
He had known there had been some damage, but this…
The central portion of Hogwarts Castle seemed to have been smashed by a Giant's mighty fist. He turned slowly, moving a full 360 degrees so that his one eye could take in the devastation of the Entrance Hall. He wasn't given to sentimentality about…well, much of anything, but Hogwarts had been his home for most of his life, and the sight of it reduced to rubble was an unanticipated blow. Among the debris he saw bits and pieces of various suits of armour and canvases in tatters, their subjects humiliated and cringing in corners if they were visible at all. There were books, too, singed and soaked beyond repair. He saw a fourth year Potions text splayed face down and reached for it automatically before checking himself. It didn't matter now.
He skidded slightly in gritty sand and saw that two of the giant hourglasses had been toppled and smashed, their contents spilled out across the flagstones, their point totals frozen in time. "One hundred points to Gryffindor, Mr. Potter," he murmured, half expecting the sand to fly from beneath his feet and back into the damaged hourglass so that the Boy Who Lived might once again lead his House to victory. The absurdity of that brought a twisted smile to Snape's face, and with a final glance at the Gryffindor hourglass, he moved toward the arched doorway leading to the Great Hall, stepping carefully over piles of loose stones. The damage to the Great Hall was even worse than what he had seen in the Entrance Hall. The charm on the ceiling had been broken during the battle, so the room lay under an oppressive blanket of black, with just enough grey light finding its way through the holes in the massive walls that he was able to see the House banners hanging in shreds, shifting slightly in the breeze.
Worst of all, he thought, as he approached the High Table, was the utter silence of the massive chamber. Snape, who had found the children to be mostly an annoyance whilst they were there, now realized that he would give his remaining eye to hear their din echoing through the Great Hall once again. It was what the room had been created for…not this unnatural stillness.
"Professor?" The word was spoken softly, in tones so hushed they barely reached his ear; the place where children had once laughed and flirted and called to one another now inspired the solemn reverence of a church, or a church-yard.
He turned bodily toward the sound and saw Hermione Granger standing just inside what used to be the entrance.
"Miss Granger," he answered, and even in his surprise he instinctively matched her hushed tones. "What are you doing here?"
They picked their way toward one another, stopping when they were close enough to converse without raising their voices. "I came to look for Harry's glasses," she said. "They weren't on him when…anyway, I wanted to find them."
"Then this is where…"
"Yes," she said simply, not offering anything more.
Snape looked around the Great Hall again, trying to picture that final confrontation, two mortal enemies battling to the death, one barely human and the other little more than a child. Both had fallen, as Potter had known they would have to. He'd gone into battle knowing there was no hope he would survive. Snape had approached his personal war against Voldemort with much the same feeling, certain of nothing but death and failure, yet there he stood, alive, with absolutely no idea why. He had made no plans for such a contingency. He'd spent the first few days in the infirmary, where Poppy kept him soaked in Dreamless Sleep potion, and then he'd moved to his dungeons, where he had marked time waiting to find out if he would see again. Well…he could see.
So what now?
"Did you see the end?" The question smacked of prurience, but he wanted to know. He wanted to know what Voldemort's last moments were like, wanted to know if he had writhed and screamed in pain, as Dumbledore had while he was being tortured. He wanted to know that she had seen the body, to ascertain that it had indeed been an empty shell and that the creature who had lived there was truly gone for good. There was no way to ask the girl that, however, so he tried a more open-ended question, hoping she'd volunteer the details.
"Yes," she said again. "It was…" She bit her lip and seemed to be searching for the right words, and then she went on in a rush. "Rita Skeeter's been showing up here at all hours of the day to badger me for the whole story. You can't believe the things she's been writing…I won't talk to her, so she's making it up as she goes along. I just can't…I can't talk about it yet. I'm sorry."
Snape made no effort to hide his annoyance. "It's over, Miss Granger, and you'll have to tell it some time. You'd do best to just have done with it."
"I helped my best friend commit suicide a week ago, Professor. I'm sorry if I'm not dealing with that according to your schedule."
He bit back a response, turning away from her briefly to gaze out at the sweeping lawn through one of the massive holes in the castle wall. A light dusting of snow covered the ground, and grey clouds hung heavily, promising more. Standing in the middle of the Hogwarts Great Hall, he could see clear down to the lake. It was choppy today, he noted absently.
"I was under the impression that all of the students were gone – the ones who were able, anyway," he said finally, breaking the silence. "Why are you still here?"
"I stayed to help Professor McGonagall get the children home safely, and then…well, she seems to need the help. I'd rather be here, where I can be of use."
"This," he indicated the damage with a sweeping gesture, "is beyond even your much-vaunted abilities, I should think."
"I didn't say I was going to rebuild the castle with my bare hands," she said bitterly. "Just that Professor McGonagall has seemed grateful that I'm here. She's been…preoccupied, I think, with Professor Dumbledore."
She gave him a questioning look as she said this last, and he nodded. The relationship had been an open secret amongst the staff for ages. It hardly mattered whether the Head Girl knew about it now.
"Yes," he said. "I suppose she would be."
"He doesn't seem to be improving." Again, the questioning look.
"He won't get better." Snape's words were blunt, but he could see no point in platitudes, even with a student.
She nodded. It was clearly no more than she had concluded on her own. "Have you seen him?"
Snape nodded and his jaw clenched. "Just now. In the infirmary."
"Your eye," she ventured, her gaze flickering to the sealed lid and then looking quickly away.
"I suggest that you not waste your pity on me, Miss Granger, when there are so many other, more suitable candidates immediately to hand," he said coldly. "I have the use of one eye, and that is sufficient for my needs."
She jerked her head once and wrapped her arms around herself. "I'm cold…"
"Small wonder. It's the middle of February, and this room is as much outdoors as in at the moment."
"I know why I'm cold, Professor. I was only going to suggest that I should do what I came here to do and return to some warmer part of the castle. I'm sure you'd like to do the same."
"I'll help you look," he said, surprising himself with the offer.
She opened her mouth, probably to protest, he thought, but she closed it again without saying anything and nodded.
It wasn't quite like finding a needle in a haystack. She moved to a spot between the Head Table and the smashed remnants of the Hufflepuff table. "He fell here," she said softly. "It's a bit confusing now, but I think he had his glasses right up 'til the end. They should be near here somewhere."
She dropped to her knees, sifting carefully through the rubble. Snape joined her, moving the heavier stones carefully out of the way so that she would have a clearer field of vision. They worked like that for perhaps twenty minutes, and then Hermione made a strangled sound and pounced, holding the glasses up triumphantly. "I knew it."
He wondered why on earth it mattered.
She seemed to read his mind. "These are the very same glasses he was wearing when I met him," she said softly. "The Dursleys would never buy him any others. I taught him how to repair them, and I rather think that between us we performed that charm a thousand times. I've never known anyone to break his glasses as often as Harry Potter." She held the glasses up for Snape's inspection. "And look…this time, not a scratch."
The weight of the irony settled over her and she turned away from him, her thin shoulders bowed and then shaking with silent sobs. She rocked back and forth, clutching the unblemished spectacles between her two hands as the grief had its way with her. He didn't know her well enough to be sure, but he suspected, watching her, that this was the first time she had cried. He was certain that she wouldn't have chosen him as her companion in grief, certain that she would give her last knut to have him leave her alone, but abandoning her in the frigid, echoing room in her current state seemed callous, even for him. He sat back and wiped his hands on his robes, leaving dusty smears on the fine wool, and waited for the storm to pass.
She gathered control with a shuddering breath. "I'm sorry," she said, keeping her face turned carefully away. "You must think…"
"It wasn't suicide," he interrupted brusquely.
"Wh-what?" She turned toward him, her face splotchy and her nose red and swollen.
"We were at war, Miss Granger. What you helped Potter do…it wasn't suicide." As efforts at comfort went, it was clumsy at best, but words of solace were hardly his forte.
"And I suppose I should take comfort in that," she said bitterly, "but frankly, I liked Harry better as a friend than a martyr."
"In the end, he was both. You'll have to make your peace with that." He vaguely wished that he knew how to sound less cold. It had been ages since it had mattered.
The girl's entire lifetime, in fact.
She nodded and tucked the glasses into one of the pockets of her robe. "Thank you for helping me."
"You're welcome." With some relief, he recognized that he was being dismissed, and he stood up, relishing the feeling of the blood returning to his stiff legs after he had crouched so long on the stone floor. He turned to go.
"Would you…would you have dinner with me tonight?" she asked suddenly.
"What?" He was stunned by her question. The idea of Hermione Granger voluntarily seeking out his company would have been laughable a week ago, and after her display, he would have thought that she would want to get away from him as quickly as possible.
"I realized when I woke up this morning that this is Valentine's Day," she said, giving him an embarrassed smile. "We were meant to have a ball tonight, you know. It's just…with everyone gone or in the Infirmary, I've eaten by myself every night this week, and, well, I'd like to have some company. That's all." She couldn't meet his eye as she said the last, and even in the dim light he could see the blush that rose to her cheeks. "Never mind," she said quickly. "I'm being stupid."
He was suddenly struck by the dichotomy that was Hermione Granger. For a week - no, for longer than that - she had shouldered burdens that would have crushed most witches of twice her years, and yet somewhere in there lived an eighteen-year-old girl who remembered it was Valentine's Day and wanted to go to the ball.
Well, he couldn't manage a ball, but he supposed he could eat dinner with the girl. In truth, he had grown rather tired of the solitude of his chambers. "As it happens, I'm free tonight," he said mockingly. "I suspect, however, that once you've experienced my company, you'll find you prefer eating alone."
A weak smile spread across her face, and suddenly she was rather pretty, red nose and all. "I suspect you're right, Professor."
§ § § §
"It's odd, isn't it, that the easiest decision I've ever made was to do something that's the hardest thing I've ever done?" Minerva McGonagall asked, a waver running through her voice.
"What on earth are you blathering about?" Snape asked, reaching for the coffee pot. "It's too early for riddles, Minerva. You sound like the bloody Sphinx."
"She's talking about leaving here tomorrow, of course," Hermione said, giving him a look of irritation and then leaning over to give her Head of House an impulsive hug. "You're doing the right thing, Professor."
"I know that, dear," McGonagall said, dabbing at her eyes with a lacy handkerchief. "As I said, the decision to go was easy. I simply couldn't consider doing anything else. It's lovely here now, but come winter, Albus would suffer terribly again. He'll be much better off in Kissamos. And with the International Wizard's Council meeting in Crete this year, he'll have plenty to keep him busy. He'll need that - you simply can't imagine how difficult it is for him to leave Hogwarts."
"I still can't quite believe it," Hermione admitted. "Hogwarts without you and Professor Dumbledore…"
"Well, what about you?" McGonagall asked. "When are you…?"
"When am I what?"
Snape answered her. "Your friends were all discharged from the infirmary months ago, and no one here is teaching anything, nor will they be for a year or more. Why are you still here?"
Hermione shrugged. "I suppose I haven't really thought about it. Every morning, I get up and there are more things that need doing, so I just…do them. I imagine I'll be here until I wake up one day and there's nothing to do."
Snape snorted his opinion of that. "Go home, Miss Granger. There will always be something to do, but it isn't your job to do it. The repairs to the castle are well underway now, and the staff who are able will be returning in a matter of weeks. We will find a way to muddle through without you." He waved a hand, indicating the walls of the Great Hall, which were once again intact. The room had, indeed, been restored to its former glory, with the exception of the charm on the ceiling, which none of them had been able to repair. Even Dumbledore wasn't sure of how to duplicate the ancient charm, and even if he had been, he lacked the strength to perform the magic himself. In the meantime, they simply lit twice as many sconces and dined in the Great Hall anyway. Only Filch, Pomfrey, McGonagall, Dumbledore, Snape and Hermione were in full-time residence, and the room was excessively large for such a small group, yet they preferred to congregate there at meals, silently acknowledging the room's comforting familiarity.
"I suppose I should be getting home," she admitted. "I've owled Mum and Dad, but I haven't actually seen them since Christmas. There's one thing I want to do, though, before I leave."
The dark brow over his good eye arched toward his hairline, asking the obvious question for him.
She gave him a determined look. "I want to sit the N.E.W.T.'s."
"Don't be ridiculous," he scoffed. "No one else in your year has even given them a thought. We're trying to rebuild the castle and re-staff the school. We can't be bothered testing one over-achiever. "
"I've spent seven years working up to those exams, Professor, and I'm not leaving here until I've taken them."
"Just give her the tests, Severus," Minerva interrupted with authority. "You and I both know that she easily could have passed them this time last year. Let her finish here once and for all."
"Oh, very well," he said irritably, recognizing the futility of arguing with the two women seated across from him at the breakfast table. "It'll have to wait until the other staff members return so they can prepare their portions. When will you be ready, Miss Granger?"
"Whenever you are, Professor. I've been studying nights."
He made a derisive sound. "Why am I not surprised?"
§ § § §
He found her in the library, helping Madam Pince repair and re-shelve the books. She was perched in midair, having cast a hovering charm on herself so that she could reach the highest shelf. He was impressed with her control but not about to say so. The news he had for her would be compliment enough for one day. He cocked his head, looking up at her. "Congratulations, Miss Granger. You've officially finished school. And, you can pride yourself on having received the highest marks in your year."
"You're very funny, Professor," she said, but though she infused her voice with sarcasm, she couldn't hide the smile that spread across her face at the news. She lowered herself carefully back to the ground. "How did I do in Potions?" she asked.
"Your performance was adequate," he said grudgingly.
"That good, eh?" She was beaming now.
He relented. "Yes, Miss Granger. That good. Yours were the highest marks I've seen in my years at Hogwarts."
"Thank you, Professor," she said sincerely. "For letting me take the tests, I mean. I don't know why it meant so much to me…it shouldn't, I know, in light of everything else. I think I just needed one thing to be the way it should be."
"What will you do now?"
She looked slightly confused at the question. "Well, when I finish charming and re-shelving these I promised Madam Pince I'd go to Flourish and Blotts. Quite a few of the books were damaged beyond repair. They won't have them all there, of course, but they can…"
"I meant," he said, interrupting her, "that I assume you'll now be leaving Hogwarts. For good, not for Diagon Alley."
"Oh, well…I couldn't possibly go this week. Not with things here in such a muddle." She gestured to a stack of books. "Probably next week, then, I'll go home and see Mum and Dad and start figuring out what I want to do next. I need to see Ron, too. He's so much better now, did I tell you? I had an owl from him last week."
"Has he recovered his memories?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. "The mediwizard at St. Mungo's said he probably never will. I told him he's better off that way."
Snape frowned slightly at the bitterness in her voice. "Has the Skeeter woman been bothering you again?"
"No. This time it was someone from Presto Press. They want me to write a book about Harry Potter's final hours. Can you imagine? As if I would even consider…"
"Why wouldn't you?"
"Why wouldn't I consider profiting by my friend's death?" she asked incredulously. "I can't believe you'd ask me such a thing!"
"Spare me your righteous indignation, girl," he said coldly. "The story will be told, one way or another. There are probably ten uninformed accounts in the works already. You have it within your power to let the true story be known. I, for one, think you owe that to your friend."
"I can't," she said raggedly. "I just can't."
He sighed, not bothering to hide his exasperation. How could someone be so strong one moment and so weak the next? The girl's inconsistencies irritated him beyond measure.
"I need to finish here so I can leave for Diagon Alley after lunch," she said, making it clear that the previous subject was closed.
"I need a few things from the Apothecary. Can I give you a list?"
"Why not just come with me?" she suggested. "We could stop and see if the portraits are ready to be picked up. I won't be able to manage all that on my own."
"Fine," he agreed. "Find me when you're finished here. We can have lunch at The Leaky Cauldron, if you'd like."
"Your treat," she answered, levitating herself back up to the top shelf.
§ § § §
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," he said.
"Just think how much more effectively you'll be able to glare with two eyes," Hermione answered practically. "And don't even get me started on how many extra detentions you can give, now that you'll be able to see around corners and whatnot."
"Of course. Mad-Eye Snape, at your service." He turned down a long hall at St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies, making no effort to shorten his stride so that she could keep pace with him easily.
"No one will call you that. It's not at all alliterative. And besides, they told you when they did the implant that the magical eyes have improved loads since Auror Moody got his. It'll look just like your real eye, or nearly."
"Let's just get this over with," he growled, pushing open the door.
They had to wait, and though Hermione passed the time thumbing through back copies of Witches Weekly, he found that he was totally unable to concentrate on the journal he had brought with him. His fingers kept returning to the bandage over his left eye. The last time he'd had a bandage there removed, half his eyeball had oozed out and slid down his face. He had handled it rather stoically, all things considered, but it was the sort of experience that left a lasting impression. What if something went wrong this time too? What if the implant hadn't worked, had actually done further damage somehow? Hadn't he been fine the way he was?
Why had he let the girl talk him into this? Why was she even still here? It was three months since she'd finished her N.E.W.T.'s. Wasn't she supposed to be at home?
His head snapped up, and he felt Hermione's hand on his forearm, giving it a slight squeeze. "Good luck," she said softly.
"You're not coming?" He hadn't really meant to say that.
She smiled. "I'll come…if you don't mind."
"You got me into this."
She nodded and set her magazine aside.
They were taken to a small examination room, and the mediwitch who had performed the implant surgery arrived only seconds later. "Are we ready, Professor Snape?" she asked pleasantly.
"We're here, aren't we?"
The mediwitch seemed to take note of his tone, and downshifted into cool professionalism. "Well now, I know we talked a bit about this before, but it bears repeating. It will take a while for you to get used to using this new eye. You'll be able to see out of it, certainly, but for a week or more you'll probably see more than you want to. You'll be able to see through doors and walls, for instance, and you might actually collide with them until you get the hang of controlling that particular feature. It will also take some time to learn to control the eye's rotation; it can be very disorienting to see out of both the front and the back of your head at one time, as you might imagine."
"So, thanks to this procedure, I'm going to be reduced to a stumbling fool," he said bitterly.
"For a few weeks, perhaps," she agreed calmly. "Learning to use this eye is just like learning to use any other magical instrument. It takes a bit of time and practice. The rewards, however, are significant. You will be able to ride a broom safely, which you never could with only one eye. As a teacher, you will be far better able to supervise your class. I'll be greatly surprised if you haven't mastered it inside of a month."
"Very well," he said. "Let's get on with this."
There was a definite sense of déjà vu as he felt her cool fingers working the bandage. He instinctively closed his good right eye, tensely waiting for the moment of truth and half expecting another disaster.
"All done," the mediwitch said as he felt the bandage pulled away. "Open your eyes, please."
He did, slowly and somewhat fearfully, gripping the table upon which he was seated when his brain was suddenly sent two completely separate images. He saw the opposing wall with his good eye and then saw through the wall with the other, magical eye. He could see into an office, see a desk and book-lined walls. It was utterly disorienting, and he immediately closed eyes again, seeking refuge in the darkness.
"Professor?" Hermione's voice came from a corner of the room, and he turned toward it instinctively, but he didn't open his eyes. "Did it work?"
"I suppose it did," he answered tensely. "But I don't see how I can…"
"Try again," the mediwitch suggested. "It will be disorienting at first, but you must practice if you want to master it."
He decided to open just one eye at a time this time. Slowly, cautiously, he peeked out of the magical eye, and when he caught sight of Hermione he sucked in a sharp breath.
"What? What is it?" Hermione asked anxiously.
Chivalry demanded that he close the magical eye, and so he did, covering it with one hand so that he could look at her with his good eye, his regular eye - the eye that hadn't just seen her naked.
"I think," he said, "that I might enjoy this after all."
§ § § §
He had thought it ridiculous when she had proposed decorating the Great Hall for Christmas. There were so few of them there that it seemed a waste of time and effort. But he had learned, in the last ten months, that she was not easily deterred when she made her mind up about something, and though he wouldn't have admitted it, he was enjoying the festive feel of the room. There were now nearly twenty of them living at the castle, and he noticed that they all found more reasons to spend time in the Great Hall once Hermione had finished decorating.
It was there that she found him, sifting through a pile of curricula vitae sent by the Ministry, each one representing a potential new Headmaster for Hogwarts. He had agreed to serve as Assistant Headmaster and was part of the committee that would select Albus's successor. Classes would resume the following year.
She came in quietly and sat down across from him, waiting for him to come to a stopping point. He glanced up at her with his magical eye, keeping his regular eye trained on the paper. She didn't seem to be in any particular rush, so he kept reading, even as he watched her looking around at the massive Christmas trees lit with thousands of tiny candles. A small smile played around her lips, and he suspected that she was remembering past Christmases there with her friends. He could always tell, now, when she was caught in the grip of the past or when the events of last February were weighing on her particularly heavily. He had learned not to ask about the latter, had quit arguing with her about the need to tell her story. She got enough of that from the journalists and the publishers who hounded her at every opportunity.
He finished the c.v. and looked up at her with both eyes. "Yes, Miss Granger?"
"I'm going home for Christmas tomorrow," she said, pulling a small package from her robes. "I wanted to give you this first."
He glanced at the package, surprised both by the gift and by the fact that he couldn't see through the box to the contents inside.
"I charmed the paper," she said, reading his mind. "What fun is opening a present if you can already see what's inside?"
"Very clever of you, Miss Granger. But really…"
"I know, I know - I shouldn't have. I don't expect you to have gotten me anything. I just saw this in Diagon Alley last week and knew you had to have it."
He didn't miss the look of poorly concealed glee on her face and smirked as he reached for the ribbon. "I can't wait."
He tore open the paper and opened the box, pulling out a small porcelain figurine, perhaps six inches high. It was obviously cheap, a poor rendering of a glowering, hook-nosed wizard in dark robes, with black hair framing his face, bent over a simmering cauldron.
He stared at it in some confusion. "What is this monstrosity?"
"I believe it's you, Professor," she said, laughing. "It's from the new 'Order of the Phoenix' collection that Fantastic Figurines has out. If it makes you feel any better, the one of me is just as bad."
"It does not make me feel any better," he said, staring at the figurine with revulsion. "Do you mean to tell me that this ghastly thing is going to be on bric-a-brac shelves all over magical Britain?"
"Oh, I doubt it. I rather expect the Snapes to languish in the shops," she teased. "They'll probably sell out of Dumbledore's before Christmas, however."
"How bad is his?"
"Oh, they're all just dismal. Apparently since we're considered 'public figures' now, they can do anything they want with our images and write anything they want about us. I'm trying to just ignore it, but when I saw that, I couldn't resist teasing you with it a little."
"Thank you, Miss Granger," he said dryly. "And a happy Christmas to you too."
She laughed and rose from the table. "I should go. I need to do some packing. I promised Mum I'd be home first thing tomorrow."
"Are you planning to return to Hogwarts, or will you be staying with your parents?"
She looked at him, obviously surprised by the question. "I'll be coming back, of course. I'm just going home for the holiday."
"Why?" he asked bluntly. "Why are you still here? It's been ten months since your classmates left."
"I was under the impression that I'd been making myself rather useful."
"No one is arguing that. I'm asking why. You won't be eligible to teach here for years - you know we don't hire witches and wizards just out of school. So I repeat: why are you still here?"
"Do you want me to leave?"
"What on earth has that to do with anything? Stop dissembling, girl, and answer my question."
"I don't know," she said in a low voice.
She glared at him then, every line of her body tense and furious. "I tell you I don't know! I don't know why I'm still here. I just can't imagine being anywhere else."
"Then it's high time you started," he said. "There's a whole wide world out there, Miss Granger, and it's absurd for you to still be here in this place - in the same room where…you need to get away from here, and you need to come to terms with what happened last February. Do you think that by rebuilding this place you can somehow erase those memories? Pretend it didn't happen?"
"Oh, spare me the amateur psychology, Professor," she snapped. "How dare you suggest I haven't come to terms with what happened? I live with those memories every single day, and I don't for a moment expect that they'll go away."
"Then why haven't you talked about it?" he demanded. "Why haven't you told anyone what happened? I spoke with the one of the Aurors who interviewed you afterwards; he said you were completely useless to them. Your friend Weasley doesn't remember. You're the only one who can tell the world what happened that day, and instead you're putting up Christmas trees and researching ceiling charms."
"Just leave me alone," she said in a hoarse voice, turning away. "You're just like all the rest of them, aren't you? You just want the story. All the gory details. And the minute I tell that story, Professor, it will become entertainment for a great lot of people who thought they owned Harry Potter, when in fact, they didn't know him at all. They're the same people who are rushing out to buy those grotesque figurines. Next thing you know, the Muggles will be wanting to make a movie out of it, one of those dreadful ones with loads of special effects and no real meaning."
"Oh come now, Miss Granger," he said derisively. "I hardly think the Muggles would have an interest in Harry Potter. And as for me just wanting the story - you're right. I do, and I won't apologize for that. I lived that story for longer than you've been on this earth, and I'd bloody well like to know how it ended."
"I'm leaving," she said quietly, not turning to look at him. "Goodbye, Professor."
He watched as she walked away, waiting until the heavy door closed behind her to dash his poorly wrought image against the flagstones.
§ § § §
With February came the first anniversary of the final battle, and though the wizarding press made the most of it, the day passed quietly within the reconstructed walls of Hogwarts castle. Snape read the lengthy front page article in the Daily Prophet as well as the tedious sidebar articles featuring interviews with people who'd had only tangential roles. It was illusory journalism, a seemingly accurate and in-depth account that was virtually unrecognisable to those who had actually been there for the battle. He didn't comment, only passed the paper silently to Poppy Pomfrey as he rose from the breakfast table.
The only one who knew the whole truth of that day still maintained her silence. She had not returned after Christmas, not even to collect the rest of her things.
He found her a week later, when he returned to the Great Hall one afternoon to retrieve some papers he'd left at the lunch table. She was standing in the middle of the enormous room with her wand outstretched, and though she must have heard it, she didn't turn toward the sound of the door opening. He could hear her murmuring, could hear the cadence of her voice as she invoked a complex incantation and began to move her wand slowly, anti-clockwise. The wand began to shake violently, and it appeared to be all she could do to maintain her grip. He stood as a statue just inside the door, hardly daring to breathe for fear of interfering with the magic he could feel her calling forth. It swirled and soared around them, and he imagined that he could hear it, an ancient and familiar melody that seemed a part of the castle, a part of himself.
And then the darkness lifted, and in its place was the clear winter sky.
Her wand fell from her hand and clattered to the ground as she sank to her knees. His own knees felt weak, and though he wanted to go to her, for a moment he couldn't seem to move. She lifted her face toward the charmed ceiling, closing her eyes against the afternoon sun that bathed her in cool light.
"That was most impressive," he said, his voice nearly reverent.
She turned to him then, though she didn't move from her position on the floor. "It was, rather, wasn't it?"
He walked over to her, still feeling as though he'd recently been hit with a jelly-legs jinx, and crouched down beside her. "Are you all right?"
"I think so. Just a bit weak."
"Small wonder, after that." He paused briefly, and then, "How have you been?"
"I think you were right - I think I needed to get away from here for a bit." It wasn't quite an answer.
"And yet, I can't help noticing that you're back," he said dryly.
"Yes." She took a deep breath and then looked at him. "I needed to go away for a bit so that I could figure out why I stayed."
"You're starting to sound like Minerva."
The hint of a smile ghosted across her face. "Before Christmas, you asked me why I was still here, and I really wasn't sure. But when I went away, I realized…well, I think you might have had something to do with it. Might even have…become the reason." The last came out in a bit of a rush, but she didn't look away from him.
He stared at her, stunned - stared without speaking at the young witch who still seemed surrounded by a halo of light and magic…and something else. Something that was to do with him.
"Do you mind, much?" she asked softly.
He swallowed hard. "No," he said, wishing his voice might be a bit steadier. "I don't think I mind at all."
She smiled at him then, and reached for his hand so that he could help her to her feet. "It's Valentine's Day again," she reminded him, as she stood up and shook out her robes. "Would you have dinner with me, Professor?"
He remembered his reluctance a year before, when confronted with that same question. How easy the decision was now. "I'll go you one better, Miss Granger. I'll cook dinner for you myself."
She gave him a dubious look. "Can you actually cook?"
"I am a Potions Master," he answered with asperity. "Of course I can cook."
"Then I accept," she said with a smile. "And afterwards…"
"Afterwards, I'd like to tell you a story."
This is an almost-response to the following "Traditional" Valentine's Day challenge at WIKTT created by Autumnmist, SilentG, and pigwidgeon37:
Either Severus or Hermione choose Valentine's Day for a reconciliation (they may be lovers or not, and we want to know the reason for their fight)
One of them has to prepare a dinner -- whether successfully or not is up to you
Requested item: an abysmally tasteless porcelain figurine
Requested phrase: "This proves that quality is more important than quantity."
I didn't quite work everything in there, and I realize that as Valentines go this is anything but "traditional," but I'd still like to acknowledge the challenge creators and thank them for the inspiration.