Chapter 14 – LAST CHAPTER!
The Daily Prophet reporters swarmed the citadel. Hermione, weary of being interviewed, hid in Bill Weasley's tent for a while.
"You in there, Hermione?" asked the tent's owner.
Hermione grunted an answer.
"You're clothed and everything?"
"Oh, come in already."
Bill ducked in. "They're everywhere! It's like the final battle all over again, isn't it?"
"For you. I avoided that mad rush."
"Yes," said Bill. "You did, didn't you? You like hiding. Harry's out there soaking it all up."
They exchanged a look. It didn't need to be said that neither of them would tell the world about his deal with the Gringott's. Hermione supposed it was a zero-sum game. Endanger the world, then save it. At least he had told her what seemed like the truth this time about what had happened.
Hermione stretched and then sighed. "Good thing all wizards do with money is put it in vaults. In the Muggle world, the shutting of a major bank would probably plunge the whole world into economic crisis."
Bill shrugged. He had not inherited his father's curiosity about the Muggle world.
"What do you suppose they'll do with the goblins?" he said finally.
"Most of them claim ignorance, and there's no way to know, really, who was involved besides those who apparently perished in the mountain. I imagine they'll permit Gringott's to reopen after a time. But I doubt people will sleep through lectures on the Goblin Wars – at least for a few years."
"Maybe they should find someone other than Binns to teach it."
"That's the problem with ghosts. They don't retire. Ever."
They were quiet for a time. "Hermione?" Bill said softly. She looked at him, puzzled. "Does Parvati ever mention me?"
"A bit," Hermione managed.
"Okay," sighed Bill. "Time to let that go, then." He stood up, stretched, scratched his head. "Guess I'm no longer under the employ of Gringott's. Not sure what to do now."
Hermione smiled at him. "Return to Hogwarts – with me."
"I think Professor McGonagall wanted to spit in my face when I backed out of my contract the first time."
"Don't worry about Minerva. I'll make sure she understands."
Some time would pass, however, before Hermione herself returned to Hogwarts. She had some unfinished business to attend to, even more pressing than what she had with Professor Snape. Or so she told herself. At any rate, she knew where to find him.
Why had he left, though, so abruptly – and twice? There was no mistaking what had happened between them – or had been about to happen – before Bill's owl had swooped down between them.
She shook herself from her musings about the mercurial professor. There were other matters at hand.
There was Master Bertrand, for example, listening quietly to her account of the events at Machu Picchu as they paused between lessons. She had been in Haiti for two weeks, and it was the first she had spoken of it.
"You witnessed great power on the mountaintop."
"I did," Hermione said. The laboratory was cool, but the air outside was hot; Hermione knew this the way she somehow knew that the sun was still up outside while she was in a Muggle theater for a matinee. She breathed in the smells. She would, she was convinced, remember this subtle scent of earth and herb all her life. It might always smell to her of failure – but that seemed to matter little now.
"What was it like to be in the presence of that power?"
In her mind she saw goblins marching wordlessly down into the mountain. "Horrible," she admitted.
"You were not drawn to it?"
"I didn't say that."
They were silent for a time. Hermione had the sense that Master Bertrand was waiting for her to say more – to say something important, but she no longer could step into the part of the eager pupil.
"I feel you are expecting some kind of epiphany, but I look into myself and there's none forthcoming – not any time soon. I feel – scooped out somehow. But it's not unpleasant. I feel both more and less than myself." She looked at him, a bit sadly. "I owe you such a debt for all your kindness, but whatever drove me to you is gone. I'm not sure I even remember what it was."
Master Bertrand smiled – a rarity – as if she had said something profound. "You owe me nothing, pitit mwen. You will always come and go here with my blessing."
She knew he meant the blessing part quite literally – he was a Wizard – but she liked the Muggle sense of the phrase, too. Her parents had said something quite similar, in fact, when she had left their house for the last time. In their deep love for her, they let her go. There might be an epiphany in there, somewhere.
While she was thinking this, Master Bertrand said. "Try again once or twice before you leave."
"Hermione!" Parvati called out from the window – the same window through which they had together seen Bill and the professor for the first time. "I'll be right down!"
Moments later, the two embraced. "You're back! Madame Pomfrey is expecting you in the clinic soon – but first, you must tell me everything. I've only read the Prophet – and that's no help. What really happened?"
They easily fell into one of their favorite walks, and Hermione did tell, but by no means all.
"So you're a hero again," Parvati summed up.
"Not really. Put together a jigsaw puzzle while the men went into the mountain. I will take credit for opening up the mountain, though, and endangering the world. Partial credit. Bill and Harry deserve some as well."
"Hermione. How could any of you have known? You all behaved exactly as anyone would under the circumstances! Don't be hard on yourself."
Hermione smiled at her friend. "I missed you."
"Missed you, too. It's nice of you to come back, if only for a bit. We'll take what we can get. Let's get you to Madame Pomfrey. She wants to know all about your plans for Muggle medical school."
Several days passed. The beginning of the school year approached, and yet Snape did not appear. Hermione casually remarked on this to Minerva, who merely said that Severus always delayed the unpleasant resumption of school until the last possible minute.
She divided her time between helping Poppy prepare the clinic for the year and visiting with Parvati and Minerva. Her life would be consumed by work soon enough. Aside from her agitation regarding the professor's absence, it was a pleasant respite.
One day, her work with Poppy was interrupted by a surprise summons from the Headmistress.
"Ah, Hermione," said Minerva upon her entrance. "Thank you for coming so quickly. You have an – I believe – unexpected guest."
Hermione glanced then to the chair across the room. The woman sitting in it was so out of context that it took her a minute to even recall her name, though she remembered the face well.
"Caroline Fudge!" she said in surprise.
"Miss Granger," said the Minister's daughter.
"Well, now," said Minerva. "I'll let you girls catch up." She disappeared behind one of the many panels.
Hermione was quite at a loss.
Caroline spoke first. "Let us tour the grounds, if you don't mind. I have not been here in many years." Hermione wordlessly nodded her assent. Indeed, she wasn't sure what else to do. They walked out in awkward silence. When they at last opened one of the many doors to the grounds, Miss Fudge began, "Miss Granger, I know my sudden appearance here might seem rather puzzling."
"It is – unexpected."
"I suppose I might congratulate you on your role at Machu Picchu."
"According to Severus, it was quite a bit more extensive than the Daily Prophet reports."
"I do not read the Prophet."
"Severus seems to quite admire you – in a professional capacity, of course."
"Yes, he speaks of you highly. I have never heard him speak so glowingly of a colleague – from the Muggle world, anyway."
"It is kind of him to make an exception for me."
"Miss Granger, I consider myself a modern witch. Like my father, I do not hold to the prejudices of the past."
"That is good of you."
"But I do hope you understand that Severus belongs to a more ancient world." They had reached the pond, and Caroline turned to face her. In hushed tones, she continued. "There are certain unfortunate rumors that have made their way to me. I find it unlikely you have not heard them as well. You seem a nice sort of girl and I would hate to have you hurt by them."
"You may rest easy, Miss Fudge. Few rumors reach me here."
"Nonetheless, I feel it is my duty to forewarn you, should it ever come to pass that they do." Caroline paused for a moment. "Miss Granger, no one from the Snape line steps outside the ancient ways. Not even Augustus."
Hermione laughed. "I have no designs on Augustus."
"That is not to whom I refer, as you are well aware. Heed my words, Miss Granger. Any congress between you and the professor would – well, I would hate to have you compromised in any way. Consider this some sisterly advice from one witch to another. You will never be more than an idle flirtation or a disposable conquest to a man of Severus' caliber. You are not from our world, and I do not believe you understand."
"Oh, Miss Fudge, I believe I understand you quite well."
"If you even remotely care about Severus, you will not pursue him!"
"If I am destined to never be any more than an idle flirtation, then why should my actions matter?"
"You believe yourself so much cleverer than the rest of us. Your tone does not become you."
"I will act according to my judgment where Severus or any other man is concerned, not according to the 'ancient' customs in which words like 'congress' and 'compromised' still have currency. You are a modern witch only in your manipulation of tradition to suit your own purpose or to toss it aside when it does not."
"Just see what happens, Miss Granger. See what doors close to you. To you both. You are a foolish, selfish girl. I was trying to spare you humiliation and disgrace! I was trying to do you a kindness!"
"Good day, Miss Fudge! I ask you to spare me your kindnesses in the future. They are not worth my time." Hermione left her agape at the pond and slammed the nearest door into the castle with great satisfaction.
The next morning, a familiar-seeming owl dropped a letter with Minerva at breakfast. As Hermione was trying to place the owl, Minerva looked at her with a puzzled, but amused expression.
"I've received a most diverting, if confusing, letter from none other than the Assistant to the Assistant Minister."
"Yes. It might be of interest to you."
Hermione took the scroll, her curiosity piqued.
"Dear Professor McGonagall,
I am beholden to the Minister, as you are well aware, and he insists I write you to warn that two of your staff, thrown together by recent events, seem to have formed an imprudent attachment which never should have existed otherwise. While the Minister normally would not quibble with such a triviality, it has also come to his attention that one of the parties intends to become rather immersed in the Muggle world in the months to come. The other party is a wizard whom the Minister is convinced is temperamentally unsuited to assimilation with said world, even for short times involving transit or turns about the block. The Ministry of Magic, in particular the Muggle Affairs Department, with which the Minister is most keenly engaged, would like to formally state its objection to such an ill-advised match which threatens the security of us all. It is not in our business, of course, to dictate matters of the heart, but it falls on you as Headmistress to discourage these parties from further engagement, as per rule A-96 of the Hogwarts Charter (ca 1440) regarding interstaff relationships. I apologize for the formality and brevity of this missive and remain
Your Student and Servant,
"Well," said Minerva. "What do you think of that?"
"I am astonished," Hermione said, honestly.
"I had hoped," Minerva said, "that Cornelius would have become somewhat less of a twit after Voldemort's demise, but he consistently disappoints me. Imagine! You do see what he's implying, do you not?"
"I am not sure…" Hermione said.
"It's about you! You, off to your Muggle doctoring academy, or whatever it's called, and I can only guess Severus – for who else would be described as 'temperamentally unsuited to assimilation' – or to pretty much anything involving other human beings, I might add? Yes, I suppose your rendezvous at Machu Picchu was more than just coincidence. Oh, and that must be why Caroline Fudge paid you a visit – to warn you off her intended. My! I have not been so amused in months. At least now, with the war over and Machu Picchu silent at last, that buffoon's antics are at worst inconvenient, and at best, extremely diverting. Well. How shall we make him sweat, hmmm? Not that he needs our assistance in that department, the fat fool."
Hermione found herself unable to respond to Minerva's query, as her mind was quite busy with another, more essential one regarding Neville's letter: What did it mean?
The first day of school approached. "I believe Bill has returned to Hogwarts," Hermione said to Parvati as they made their way to the first staff meeting of the year.
"He has," Parvati said. "He stopped by this morning."
"You're still friends then," Hermione said.
"So much for Trelawney's prediction."
"It's funny," Parvati said. "I used to take such comfort in the idea of Divination. I used to like to think that our fate is laid out ahead of us and if we were to look in the right way, in the right direction, we could see it and prepare ourselves."
"Knowing what is in store – it doesn't help. Nothing happens like you'd expect. Not with me, anyway."
"Nor with any of us."
"You will come visit us every chance you get?"
"I can't believe you're voluntarily going to this meeting when you're not even on staff anymore."
"I'm – curious," Hermione said.
Had it been only a year since she'd sat in this same room with this same group of people for the first time? Had it been only a year since Professor Snape had turned his critical eye toward her? Yet she might have preferred that to now, when he did not look her way, not once. He and Bill sat side by side, exchanging a whispered word now and then. Bill could make an inanimate object chatty.
A few times she thought she felt his gaze, but it disappeared whenever she looked his way, and again, the question plagued her: What did it mean?
That evening at dinner in the Great Hall, the rest of the staff engaged in typical post-summer chatter, as well as animated debate regarding the happenings at Machu Picchu. Hermione permitted herself to remain silent. Caroline had not been wrong – the Daily Prophet had treated Hermione as no more than a footnote. It was the name Harry Potter that was on everyone's tongue – again. Perhaps he would get another chance at that ministry appointment he said he'd wanted. Or perhaps this time he would garner his hero's due more wisely. Hermione hoped so, and often even believed it.
She glanced at the professor once more. He had been as silent as she. What did the professor believe? What did he think about her? About anything?
After the meeting, Hermione walked up the long stairs that led to the tallest tower. The air was brisk at the top and she pulled her cloak around her ears. Her mind was swimming. In three days, she would be leaving. There would be visits, of course. She would not abandon Minerva or Parvati, but –
"Master Bertrand writes me that congratulations are in order."
The voice should have startled her, but it did not. It was then she realized she'd been waiting for it.
"Yes, I suppose they are." He joined her at her side, and the two looked out of the turret window together. "I succeeded when I let go of the need to. You talked once about wanting to 'own the magic,' like Voldemort. It wasn't until the mountaintop that I knew what you meant – and then could see it in myself."
"It is a terrible thing to see in oneself. I would have spared you that."
"I wouldn't. I'm glad. If nothing else, it makes me understand you better. You are rather an enigma, you know."
"Miss Granger," he said. Did his voice tremble? "I will ask you few favors in the years ahead, but will you face me now?"
His cadence had suggested more words to come, but he stood now in silence.
"I congratulate you on your success, not that it surprises me."
"Thank you, Professor. But I do not think that is what you want to say to me."
He stared at her for another long moment. She dropped her eyes, unable to withstand his gaze. "Hermione," he said at last. "Hermione – for so you are in my thoughts – forgive me this liberty – I have been told my face is unreadable, but I do not believe that is so. Not for you. Look at me."
She met his eyes once more. No, it was not true for her. Not anymore. Softly, she managed, "I still do like words, you know."
Snape laughed – laughed! – and pulled her to him. "My dearest Hermione."
This was the homecoming she had waited for – oh, for how long? She had searched for it at Hogwarts, and with Harry, and in Haiti, and now, now she had arrived and it was almost too much. How could so still and silent an embrace be too much? She felt as if she were falling, plummeting from the turret.
"Shhh…," he whispered into her hair, as if to quiet her very thoughts. "It is all over now."
It was some time before they left the tower.
"I had an interesting visit a few days ago from Cornelius Fudge's daughter," Snape said later as they walked the grounds, "although I do not believe it had the intended effect."
"Ah," Hermione said. "Yes, I do not think I eased her fears that I would drag you down into the mud with me."
"All Caroline cares about his her own standing. I must say, if it had occurred to me years ago that were I to a Muggle-born, Caroline and her ilk would leave me in peace forever, I would have found the nearest Muggle and immediately proposed."
"I'm glad my lineage is so convenient to you. It is a relief, too, that you haven't altered overnight and begun reciting flowery love poems to me."
"'Oh my love's like a red, red rose, that's newly sprung in June.'"
"Perhaps you would prefer, 'I have seen roses damasked, red and white, but no such roses see I in her cheeks.'"
"I would, as a matter of fact."
"Or Lewis Carroll?"
"Absolutely – especially if it involves crocodiles and little fish."
"How could I forget?" She then seized his hand, temporarily shaking off the dissonance of engaging in such a schoolgirl gesture with Professor Snape. "When did you know you were in love with me?"
"Ah, that question. Was it at the Library? I do not know myself. Gradually it dawned on me that your good favor is more important to me than any other's."
"In that it's important at all."
She squeezed his hand. "This is nice."
"Oh, Miss Granger," he said, his eyes glinting in the darkness. "It will get quite a bit nicer."
He was right.
"Tell me this," she said later. "Why did you wait so long to return?"
"Fear, I suppose. I saw you with Potter and had no reason to believe he would not win all once again – and word came to me you would soon be leaving Hogwarts. I didn't want to burden you with my unresolved affections. Then Caroline appeared and gave me reason to hope."
"I'll have to write and thank her for that. Otherwise, I shudder to think what might have happened."
"As a modern witch, you could have pursued me, eligible and willing bachelor that I am. I might ask you why you went back to Haiti."
"I thought you of all people would understand my need to have some resolution there."
"I do understand," he smiled. "Now. You must forgive me if I did not feel secure in your regard for me."
"Well," Hermione said. "I have abused you awfully to your face at one point or another."
"Nothing I didn't deserve."
Hermione considered him. "Do you think in the years to come I will be able to wean you from self-flagellation?"
"Perhaps I shall deserve it less under your tutelage."
"Oh my. A reversal of roles! I might enjoy this."
"Yes, I think you might."
"Shall we start right now?"
Some unpleasant tasks, however, lay before them, Hermione in particular. One such task sat before her now. Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress, was staring at her protégé with a kind of shocked horror. "If I did not know you better, I would assume this is some kind of joke."
"It most definitely is not."
"You and Severus? I cannot believe it. How? How long? Why was I unaware? Are you completely mad?"
"Oh, Minerva, if you doubt me, how shall I fare with all the others? But to answer your last question, anyway, if this is madness, I welcome it."
"Hermione, I cannot bless this, not when I know what I know! Merlin's Beard, the man's history is a patchwork of lies and turnabouts. You cannot trust him!"
"But I do – trust him. If you knew all I knew, Minerva, you'd trust him too."
"But what he did to Harry in Tom Riddle's cottage –"
Hermione's look silenced her. "I cannot speak of that day. Severus, for reasons I do not understand, insists I do not. Just know that all is not what it seems to be."
Minerva sat back and sipped her tea thoughtfully. Long moments passed. "You are happy?"
"I am. Most terribly."
Minerva stared in her tea cup. Her mind was whirring, viewing this new puzzle from all angles, assimilating it, and seeking its advantages. Hermione felt the room abuzz with her cogitation. "I suppose this means that you'll be staying here longer? Delaying your plans for your doctor school? Or at least visiting often. It tickles me to think what they're saying in London. Oh, and poor Caroline Fudge. Of course, that was the purpose of her visit after all. And here I thought it was some Ministry politics in the wake of the Machu Picchu disaster. My! I am losing my edge. Albus was right. Peace makes one soft."
Hermione smiled broadly. "Let's drink to peace, then. I like soft."
Several weeks later, the Professor, Bill, and Parvati walked Hermione to the Apparation point beyond Hogwarts. "I will miss you all, though of course I'll be back every chance I get."
She embraced Parvati and Bill in turn. She looked up at Snape. "Walk with me a bit further."
"I am yours to command."
Hermione grinned. "I know."
Hermione and Snape continued down the path, arm in arm. Bill and Parvati stared after them. "Tell me, Parvati," Bill said. "Am I a complete fool? How did I miss this? How long has this been going on?"
Parvati sighed. "For the professor, I think some time. For Hermione, I am as in the dark as you."
Bill squeezed his eyes shut, rubbed them, opened them again. "When I was a kid, I assumed she'd marry my brother. Then there was Harry. But this – who would have thought?"
Parvati looked at Bill, held his gaze for once. "Who would have thought any of us would be where we are now? You, back at Hogwarts instead of off adventuring. The professor, in love. Hermione, off of magic – for a while, anyway."
Parvati laughed. "Me saying something even remotely deep. At least Harry is still a hero. That's comforting."
Bill chose not to respond. He listened thoughtfully to the sound of Snape's footsteps returning to them. "It's like we had a script all set out for us and then someone rewrote it."
"But here we are."
Snape joined them and they made their way back to the castle.
Author's notes: Thank you, again, to all who have read and reviewed. As frivolous as it may be, this project has renewed my creative drive as nothing has since my college days, and has given me confidence that I can actually complete a novel-length work of fiction. That would not have been possible without you all taking the time to comment. (So please… take time to comment!)
I must also mention one final time that I am blessed to live with an outstanding editor who is also my best friend.