The rest of the class went flawlessly. No one whispered, no one daydreamed and no one failed to get their potion correct. Even Neville Longbottom had managed to brew a perfect concoction. The main reason for this was the fact that Professor Snape looked so furious that it wouldn't have been a very far stretch of the imagination to think he would literally rip the head off of the first student who made an error. No one wanted to be that student.
"Miss Granger! Stay behind."
Even the Slytherins gave the Head Girl looks of complete sympathy as they passed her. Hermione refused to let herself look nervous as she calmly packed away her supplies. When the last student had exited the classroom her fiancé approached her work table. "Do you have another class or study session after this one?"
"Then come with me." He swept out of the dungeons, not waiting to give her time to shoulder her book satchel. His long legs carried him swiftly through the corridors as she hurried to keep up. Eventually, they came to his private quarters. He didn't have to wonder who had disturbed the wards. He could almost smell the sugar from those infernal candies the Headmaster was forever sucking on. His lips curled into a sneer as he opened the door.
"Trinity, that is not a toy." Elizabeth was taking a crystal phial from her youngest child's chubby hand in spite of the toddler's protests. There was already a table set with a welcoming tea. The other two girls were staring wistfully at the silver tray piled high with biscuits and cakes, apparently waiting for their host to arrive.
"Elizabeth." The woman looked up when he spoke, then straightened up, pulling Trinity up with her and cradling her on one hip.
"I apologize for that, Severus. They're so curious at this age."
"Indeed. That is why I've brought Miss Granger along. I felt it best that your daughters not be present in case matters turn… uncomfortable."
Hermione blinked and looked from Snape to Lizzie and back again. "Are you sure? They're quite a handful. Give them the chance and they'll tear this castle down around our ears. And doesn't Miss Granger have more important things to do? She's due to sit her NEWTs this year."
"She could have passed them with record marks last year. Miss Granger, I trust you will be able to handle these three. It should still be nice enough outside for them to enjoy the grounds."
Catherine looked up and over at her mother. "Are we to go with her, then, Mother?"
Jennifer took a more direct approach and addressed Hermione directly. "Is it true that there is a giant squid in the lake? Sir Nicholas said that there was."
Trinity had her thumb in her mouth again and was looking at the girl speculatively. Apparently she was still feeling friendly towards Hermione, because she suddenly lunged towards her with both arms outstretched. Lizzie was just barely quick enough to keep from dropping her. "Well, I suppose that settles things. Girls, go with Miss Granger, and mind what she tells you. She's in charge. If I hear that you've been misbehaving I'll have you out in Grandmother's garden pruning her hedges for a week."
There was a unified 'Yes, Mother' from the two older girls as Trinity happily snuggled herself into Hermione's arms. With a nod to Professor Snape and Lizzie, the Head Girl led her charges from the dungeons.
Catherine took position on Hermione's right side. "Where are we going?"
Jennifer flanked Hermione on the left. "We didn't get any biscuits or cakes. Mr. Dumbledore ordered them especially for us, and Severus made us leave before we could have any."
"We can stop by the kitchens and get a bite to eat, then we'll go out onto the grounds. If we're lucky the Giant Squid will be in the shallows and you can see him."
"You mean there really is a giant squid in the lake? Is it really that deep, then?"
"More than deep enough. There are all kinds of things in the lake. There's even a village of merpeople at the bottom."
"Merpeople?" Catherine tugged a lock of Hermione's hair out of Trinity's hand. "Like in the storybooks?"
"Not nearly that pretty. The merpeople in our lake are rather wild looking." As they rounded a corner they came face to face with Harry and Ron.
"'Mione! There you are. Harry and me were just coming down to rescue you." Ron looked at the girls on either side of Hermione and then to the toddler in her arms. "What are you doing?"
"Professor Snape asked me to look after his sisters while him and his step-mother talk. We were on our way to the kitchens to get something to eat before going out on the grounds."
"The kitchens? Excellent! We'll go with you. We can show them the Quidditch pitch."
"That could be fun. Girls, this is my friend Ronald Weasley and this is my other good friend, Harry Potter. Guys, this is… oh… I'm sorry. Everything went by so quickly in class, I'm afraid I've forgotten which is which."
Catherine curtsied. "Catherine Eliza Henrietta Louisa Snape. I am very please to meet you."
Jennifer rolled her eyes in response to her sister's showing off. "I'm Jenny. Are you the real Harry Potter?"
Harry grinned a bit crookedly. "Unfortunately. Hey, Hermione, lemme take that book bag for you. Looks like you've got your arms full."
"Oh, thank you."
Harry reached up and took the satchel from her shoulders, smiling at the pair of bright blue eyes the peering at him over Hermione's shoulder. "Hello there." The child grinned and waved the fingers of one pudgy hand.
"That's our sister Trinity," offered Jenny. "She's the baby." Trinity's back went ramrod straight as she whirled her head around to glare at her sister. Jenny almost managed to look as though she didn't notice. The smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth gave her away.
Harry grinned and tweaked one of the toddler's curls. "And the prettiest of the bunch, too." The compliment worked just as it was meant to. Trinity graced Harry with one of the special smiles she usually only gave her father.
The six of them eventually got to the kitchens where some of the house elves eagerly fixed them a picnic basket of food while other house elves ooohed and ahhhed over the little girls. Eventually they left to make their way to the grounds. Jenny was firing questions at Harry, each new one coming almost before he finished answering the one before it. Catherine was busy asking Ron and Hermione about the classes they took and what their teachers were like. Trinity had decided she would rather be carried by Ron than Hermione (he bigger and looked stronger) and was content to rest her head on his shoulder as she nibbled a chocolate biscuit.
"So you're Head Girl and Boy, then? You must be very clever. Why aren't you in Ravenclaw? Isn't that where the clever people go?"
"My whole family's in Gryffindor, and Hermione here is braver than she looks."
"What?" Hermione shot Ron an incredulous look, but he only grinned back at her. The front doors open to let them all step out into the bright sunshine. There wouldn't be many days like this left before the cold set in, and they intended on enjoying it while they could. The Giant Squid obliged them by being in the shallows as they caught sight of the lake, waving a large tentacle about lazily. Jenny squealed excitedly and broke into a run. "Don't go into the water! There are Grindlylows in there as well."
"I won't!" the child yelled back over her shoulder.
"Please forgive my younger sister. She can be such a child at times."
Ron looked down at Catherine's serious expression and nodded gravely. "It's a burden that we older siblings must bear." Hermione rolled her eyes at the both of them. "Where should we set up the food, 'Mione?"
"Under our usual tree." Hermione carried the basket over and set it down on the soft grass. The house elves had even thought to put a large blanket in the top of the basket, which she spread out onto the ground. Catherine helped her to spread it out evenly before both girls and Ron settled down onto it. Ron shifted his weight so that Trinity could sit in his lap before fishing out another biscuit for her. Harry was too busy answering Jenny's summons to skip stones with her to join them just yet.
"What is your favorite class, Miss Granger?"
"Please, call me Hermione." She poured a mug of pumpkin juice from a jug in the basket and handed it to Catherine. "I'd have to say that my favorite is Arithmancy, followed by Transfigurations and then Potions."
Ron sat up. "What? You like Potions?"
"It's a very challenging and interesting class." Hermione prepared a sippy-cup of juice for Trinity before pouring another mug full for Ron. "And there are so many practical uses for potions."
"Well sure, but that doesn't mean you have to enjoy the class. I mean, Snape is such…"
"Ron." It was only one word, but it held a wealth of meaning. He looked Hermione, who motioned towards each of the girls with them using only her eyes.
"Errr… yeah… right." His ears went red as he fell silent. Catherine tilted her head curiously.
"Isn't my brother a good teacher?"
Ron and Hermione looked at one another, caught off guard for a second.
"Oh, well, he's…"
"Professor Snape is very…"
It was a rather sticky question.
As the door shut behind Hermione and the girls, Severus turned around to face his step-mother. She was standing by one of his chairs with her hands on her hips and her eyes narrowed in a menacing glare. "What?"
"You're doing it already."
"Ordering her around like a servant! Treating her like a piece of property rather than like an intelligent human being!"
Severus snarled under his breath. "Don't be ridiculous! That was me ordering a student about! It had nothing to do with our current predicament."
Lizzie snorted. "Of course it didn't."
Snape narrowed his eyes. "Madam, if you have come to hurl accusations at my head, kindly remember just which Snape is responsible for this."
"Oh, don't worry, I know exactly whom to blame. Believe me; he's not getting out of this unscathed."
"Then kindly turn your venom elsewhere. I haven't the patience for it." In a rustle of billowing robes Severus claimed chair by the hearth without offering to let Lizzie sit down first. If she noticed the slight she said nothing about it, but took the chair across from him.
"I'm sorry, Severus. You're right. You are as much a victim in this as she is."
"Thank you for being so reasonable. Now, would you care why you are here? That eldest girl of yours can't be more than five, so she certainly isn't ready to start school."
"She's six, actually, and she would be more than able to hold her own if I were to start her today. I came because I wanted to make sure that… that everything was going to be all right. I've grown quite fond of the Grangers, and they are both very worried for their daughter."
Snape arched a single brow. "I take it that they are part of your committee, then?"
"They've been getting the paper delivered even when their daughter isn't at home. The moment they heard about the Marriage Law they contacted the Weasleys. Arthur and Molly invited them to join them when they came to speak with me. I… uh… I was the Ministry when the law was passed and I'm afraid that I caused a rather big scene."
A grin tugged at the corners of Severus' mouth. "I seem to remember reading something about it in the papers. Something about you hurling Cornelius Fudge into the Fountain of Magical Brethren and then hurling both Wizarding and Muggle insults at him in four different languages." The grin eventually appeared as he looked at Lizzie's flaming face. "You always seemed like such a sweet, docile Hufflepuff. Wherever did you learn such foul language?"
"My father was a sailor who liked his rum."
"And suddenly it is all so much clearer." He turned his attention to the tea tray. "Can I interest you in a cup?"
Relieved to be moving away from her display of temper at the Ministry, Mrs. Snape smiled. "Yes, please. Cream and six sugars, if you will."
"Six? The Headmaster's sweet tooth must be contagious."
"The Grangers are always scolding me about how much sugar I eat. They're both dentists, you know. Very popular ones from what I can gather."
"I take the time to familiarize myself with the personal files of all my students, Elizabeth."
"So you knew my father was a sailor."
"I would hardly call a Naval Captain a mere 'sailor'." He handed her a cup of tea prepared to her specifications. He took his own without cream or sugar, preferring the slightly bitter taste of the untainted tea. "The Grangers' current state of upset is regrettable, but there is little that can be done to alleviate the problem. Until you manage to work some magic of your own and get this ridiculous law thrown out, Miss Granger is vulnerable."
Lizzie sighed. "Hermione Granger is not the only one in danger. I realize that there are other concerns at the moment, and even though no one has ever come right out and said so, I suspect that Albus Dumbledore has his own band of allies and followers fighting against You-Know-Who and his Death Eaters, but you all act as though the fate of the entire world hinges on this one girl."
"It very well may."
Elizabeth blinked and set her cup back onto her saucer. "How do you mean?"
Severus took a long drink of his own tea, as though buying time to form thoughts into words. "Everyone is terrified of the Dark Lord. They tremble in fear at the mere mention of him. In their terror they have forgotten that he was once a man, and before that he was a boy. He was a student at this very school, and a brilliant one. Fifty years ago he set academic records that broke even those set by Dumbledore in his own youth. Those records stood unchallenged for five decades until Hermione Granger walked into this castle. She has shattered them all through dedication and her own brilliance."
"You think she could be powerful enough to defeat… well… I thought it was believed that Harry Potter would be the one to…"
"And he may very well be the one to defeat the Dark Lord, but if there is one thing that has become blatantly obvious during the past six years it is that Mr. Potter has a penchant for getting into sticky situations that only his friend, Miss Granger, can get him out of. That boy hardly makes a move without her behind him. He may be the muscle, but she is the mind.
"She is also fairly attractive and extremely powerful. She will be an asset to any wizarding family. The Death Eaters could accomplish two feats through this law; the first is to bind Hermione Granger to one of their own sons and thereby securing their family bloodline and the second is to deal a crushing blow to the Light by taking away one of our most powerful allies. It is of tantamount importance that the girl doesn't fall into the wrong hands."
"I don't think that the Grangers realize any of that, not truly. Oh, they had the measure of Lucius Malfoy right enough. Of course, that wouldn't be too hard to do. The man positively screams 'evil git' when he walks into a room."
"And he would most certainly fall under the category of 'wrong hands'. Our original plan, of course, was to tie the girl to the Weasleys. She's rather close to that particular family."
"So I've heard. In any event, our allies have determined that leaving her tied to me is for the best. They seem to feel that I'm more intimidating that the Weasleys."
"I don't know where they would have gotten that idea." Lizzie set her cup down upon a little table by her chair. "Severus, I know you've never been fond of me, and I suspect there is some resentment at my marrying your father…"
"It has nothing to do with you. Well, not entirely with you."
"I don't seek to take your mother's place."
"That would be hard to do since, in my father's eyes, my mother never had a place. I am, however, disappointed in you."
"You were Head Girl and as clever as they come. Rarely do I have a student who actually enjoys learning. I can honestly say that I haven't had one of your ilk since, well, since Miss Granger finally came to school. I only had you during your seventh year, but you left an impression. I am disappointed because I would have thought you had more intelligence than to marry a man like my father. You could have been great."
"Severus, I am great. I'm exactly what I've always wanted to be. Just because a witch has brains and talent doesn't mean she has to throw herself into a career. I'm happy being a wife and mother."
Her response seemed to have taken him by surprise. "But it seems like such a waste of talent!"
Lizzie smiled, her blue eyes flashing in the firelight. "Why, Severus… you're a feminist. I never would have guessed."
He shot a glare directly at her. "It is just that I do not hold with the antiquated notions of my peers. There's no reason to tie a witch to childbed her entire life, and many of the conveniences and advances we enjoy today were brought about by witches, not wizards. As a society we are made richer through equal cooperation."
"And if all Hermione Granger wants is to be a wife and mother?"
Severus gave an uncharacteristic bark of laughter. "Her? Don't be an idiot. That girl plans to save the world. You can't do that if you're elbow deep in nappies and bottles."
"So, because I'm a mother, there's no hope of me getting that law thrown out."
"You're not alone, and you have my family's name and gold behind you."
"But not your father's support, it would seem." She was aware that a touch of bitterness entered her voice.
Severus shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I… I spoke to him after you had left. He's… he's remorseful."
"Of course he is. He's sleeping alone."
Snape flinched. "That's rather blunt for a Hufflepuff, don't you think? I assure you, I have been traumatized enough in my life. Please don't call up images of my father having sex."
"Where did you think the girls came from? A cabbage patch?"
He shot her a rather dirty look. "That youngest one is going to be a problem."
"She already is, but it's Jennifer you need to watch out for. She's the middle one. She looks prim and proper, but she's a prankster and a hoyden."
"And the eldest?"
Lizzie smiled. "Catherine. She's six going on thirty. Far too serious and so clever it's scary. She found out that she was named after an empress and she's been playing the part ever since."
"Any future Slytherins among them?"
"Lucky man, you get Trinity."
"I can hardly wait." The sarcasm was impossible to miss. Lizzie gave a full, unladylike laugh.
"Oh, Trinity isn't so bad, although she is rather manipulative. I think your father encourages it. She knows she's adorable and uses it to her advantage." Lizzie looked down at her lap and toyed with one of the hand-carved buttons of her robes. "Severus… I know that you and your father aren't on the best of terms…"
"You're too generous. I loathe the man."
"Severus, he knows that he's made mistakes. He knows that he botched things royally with your mother and with you, and he truly does want to make amends. It hurts him that you refuse to speak with him, that you won't even accept our invitations to visit of the holidays. But you know your father. His pride won't let him make the first move. If… if you would just speak with him, make the first move…"
Severus stood suddenly from his chair, his face gone hard. "You tread on things that are none of your affair."
Elizabeth stood up just as quickly. "He's my husband! I love him! That makes it my affair!"
"You can't possibly love him! He's old enough to be your own father!"
"I DON'T CARE ABOUT THAT!" She screwed her eyes shut and took several deep breaths. "Severus, I know you hate him, and you have more than ample reason to do so, but please understand that he hates himself as well. Oh, he puts on a good show for everyone else, but I'm the one who lives with him. I'm the one who sees the times when he shuts himself up in his study with a bottle of brandy and drinks himself into oblivion. I'm the one who finds him in the portrait gallery in front of your mother's painting, begging her to forgive him."
"Too late for that."
"He knows that, Severus! He knows that and it tears him up inside. And he knows how much he has hurt you, his only son." She dared to step forward and place a timid hand on his arm. "He loves you. I know he's never told you so, but he does. He's fully aware that he can't undo the past, that he can't erase the tears and the fights, but he would like the chance to repair what he can. Men are so foolish over their sons, but I can't give him one. I tried with Trinity and it nearly killed us both.
"And the girls want to know you, Severus. Cathy and Jenny are old enough to start asking why you never come to the manor. Trinity will realize it soon enough. They're your sisters and they're curious about you. It cuts your father like razors when they ask about you."
Severus calmly detached her hand from his person. "I believe our visit is at an end, Madam. You know the way out." It was curt and cold dismissal. He turned away from her and left for the safety of his private potions lab, ignoring the soft sound of a sob coming from the woman by his hearth.