"It is never too late to be what you might have been."
--George Eliot

Hermione was dying. The mediwizards hadn't said those words aloud, of course, but she wasn't stupid. She was one hundred and forty-six years old, and her heart was failing faster than they could heal it. For all the advances made in Muggle and Wizarding medicine, death eventually took everyone, and she would be no exception.

The truth of her impending end was frustrating, but it wouldn't go away by ignoring it. So in her usual brisk manner, Hermione set out to spare her children as much distress as possible. She sold her property, settled her estate, and made her own funeral arrangements. Then she moved into a small suite of rooms at the Kentigern Retirement Home for Aged Witches and Wizards, determined to depart the mortal coil with as much dignity as possible.

Unfortunately, her plans for a dignified exit were promptly buggered all to hell by Severus Snape.

He first appeared in the midst of a lively discussion with her eldest great-great grandson on the repercussions of a recent Wizengamot ruling. A subtle movement in the corner drew her attention, and astounded, she saw a nebulous hint of billowing black robes topped with the suggestion of a large hooked nose and pale face. She didn't recognise him at first, but to be fair, it had been over a century since she'd last seen him, and she certainly hadn't been expecting him to turn up now. Before she could do more than blink in surprise, the resident mediwitch rushed in, chattering about medical alerts and too much excitement. When Hermione looked again, the apparition vanished, and it was hours before she puzzled out that Severus Snape had appeared in her room.

After that initial sighting, Snape regularly flickered in and out of her vision. He stood beside the bookcases, looking bored whilst the cleaning staff changed her bed linens. She caught flashes of him rolling his eyes as he retreated to the tiny entrance hall when her family and friends visited.

He obviously wasn't a ghost as he wasn't translucent, yet he wasn't quite solid either. Although, considering it was Snape, failing to completely settle on one side or the other seemed rather fitting.

She was the only person who could see him, a theory Hermione had tested just once. She had no intention of asking again if anyone else saw Severus Snape standing right over there. One round of confused expressions dissolving into condescending pity was more than enough to suit Hermione. Worse, Snape had smirked throughout the entire conversation.

She repeatedly asked what he wanted, and although his lips moved, she couldn't hear his replies. She tried ignoring him, but that proved difficult; particularly after she woke from a nap to find Snape leaning over her bed, peering curiously at her. For a frozen moment, they'd stared at each other, but when Hermione had struggled to sit up, he disappeared.

The bizarre game of hide and seek continued for three weeks until the morning she awoke with a crushing pain in her chest and healers crowded around her bed, frantically muttering spells. Oddly enough, as the pain receded, the healers faded into semi-translucency, and Snape, standing behind them, became more substantial.

When he appeared completely solid, he crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at her.

"Finally," he said.

Before she could formulate a response, the small room and the healers faded away. Instead of lying on her bed, Hermione found herself standing in the warm interior of the Hogwarts Library.

Confused, she looked around. The room was exactly as she remembered it from her schooldays. Tucked into their shelves and patiently waiting for a reader, thousands of books stretched back to dark, secretive corners. Dust motes danced in the sunlight filtering through casement windows. Sturdy tables and chairs, polished to a mirror shine, stood ready to be filled.

Hermione took a deep breath to call out to Snape, to demand he show himself, and stopped, the words fading away as she caught the long ago scents of dusty parchment and worn leather, of lemon oil and beeswax. She took another breath and grinned. There was even the faint tang of unwashed socks that had seeped into the library after centuries of student use.

She turned, and looking for Snape was forgotten once again as lush silk swirled around her legs. Surprised, Hermione looked down to find herself dressed in sapphire blue dress robes. She'd last been wearing flannel pyjamas.

Chains of tiny runes stitched in gold along the hem and neckline gleamed as she moved, and those small flashes of light sparked her memory. She'd been in Diagon Alley to buy school supplies, and she'd stopped to admire the robes in Madam Malkin's window.

"They'd look nice on you, Mum. They're your colour, too," Rose said. "And isn't the embroidery gorgeous? You should try them on."

"Not at that price. They're far too expensive, and the dress robes I have are still serviceable." Hermione shook her head. "With both you and Hugo at Hogwarts now, we can't afford to be wasteful. I'll count myself lucky if the school robes we buy today last the entire year. Those robes won't let down more than three inches, you know, and you and Hugo are growing like weeds." She glanced back at the window, wistful. "They are beautiful, though. Maybe someday."

Now she wore those long-admired robes.

She brushed her hands across the luxurious fabric and froze at the sight. Her hands were her hands again. Decades ago, she'd been dismayed to realise that formerly taut, smooth skin had given way to crepe paper flesh and age spots. Without noticing, her hands had been replaced with her mother's hands, but now age had fallen away, and they were her hands again.

In an instant, she was leaning over one of the tables, examining her reflection in the polished wood. She turned her head back and forth, fingers brushing over her face and neck. The table's reflection wasn't as accurate as a mirror, but it was clear she was no longer a wrinkled and frail old woman. She looked thirty, perhaps, or...

"Thirty-five," she murmured. She'd always thought thirty-five was the best age. Experienced enough to overcome the insecurities of youth, but self-confident enough to be occasionally frivolous, it offered the best of both youth and maturity. Her mother once said that a woman grew into her beauty at thirty-five, and Hermione had agreed.

"The change is rather dramatic," Snape said from behind her.

Hermione straightened and turned to face him.

"What's going on?" she demanded. "Why am I here? And why have you been popping up at every turn? Am I dreaming, or have I finally gone mad?"

The flash of sympathy in his eyes surprised her.Sympathy? From Snape?

"You're dying, and I haven't been "popping up at every turn". I'd been there all along, but you saw me only when your body drew close to death. Each time your heartbeat strengthened, you lost the ability to see me. The mediwizards are attempting to keep your body alive, but they won't succeed. You've fallen into a coma. You'll wait here until it's time to move on, and I'm to wait with you."

Hermione's brow furrowed. "Why you? No offence intended, but we barely knew each other. Why not Ron? Or my parents? Or even Harry?"

Snape glanced down, brushing an invisible piece of lint from his sleeve. "I'm here because we've been designated as..." His expression closed, and he stopped, clearing his throat.

He was uncomfortable, she realised, and she stepped closer to him, curious.

"We've been designated as what?" she prodded.

"Soul mates." His voice was flat, and he still wouldn't look at her.

Hermione's mouth dropped open. "Soul mates? You and me? But you hated me. There's no way we were soul mates."

"Are soul mates," he stressed. "Not were. It's not something that can be renegotiated like an employment contract."

Shocked, Hermione blindly pulled a chair out from the nearest table and sank into it, leaving Snape standing slightly behind her. She tried to absorb his words. She and Snape were soul mates? It seemed outlandish, but if it were true, it would explain a great deal about her marriage. She and Ron had been friends, and they'd loved each other, but there had always been an indefinable quality missing. They'd never forged the deep connection she'd expected to grow from marriage. It had always remained beyond their reach, frustrating them both.

"What's wrong with us, Ron? All we ever do is disagree." Hermione sat next to her husband and slumped against the back of the sofa. "I'm sick of it."

"Yeah, I know." Ron looked as weary as she felt.

"Did we make a mistake?" Hermione asked, her voice plaintive. "By getting married, I mean."

"Maybe," he answered slowly. "I'm not saying that to hurt you, but maybe we should have spent a few weeks after the war shagging each other's brains out, then gone on as friends." With a fleeting lopsided smile, he shrugged. "But that's not what we did. I do love you, Hermione. Besides, if we hadn't married, we wouldn't have Rose and Hugo. When I look at them, I can't imagine a different life. Can you?"

She rubbed her eyes and shook her head.

"Then we'll keep trying. We can do this, even if we can't agree on anything else," Ron said. "If any two people in the world are stubborn enough to make a marriage work, it's us, right?"

Her laughter was thick with tears, and she rested her head on his shoulder. "Right."

Hermione stared at the wooden tabletop in front of her. They'd kept to their agreement, and they'd learnt to compromise and stop dwelling on petty annoyances. But their marriage had never been as successful as they'd hoped. Decades before Ron's death, their relationship had gradually declined into one more suited to roommates than husband and wife.

She should be horrified at the thought of Severus Snape as her soul mate, but she felt only surprise. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion as she realised she was focussing on Snape whilst ignoring something that should have been at the forefront of her mind. She should be worried about Rose and Hugo and the rest of her family. They must be terribly distraught. Yet as soon as the thought formed, it was replaced by the utter certainty that her family would be all right, and everything would be fine.

She'd never been certain her family would be all right without her. She was always secretly convinced that something dire would befall her loved ones if she wasn't there to watch over them.

"Has this place altered my emotions?" she asked, alarm sharpening her voice.

"Yes, in a manner of speaking," Snape answered. "This place eases the transition between worlds. As the ties binding you to your old life unravel, your old emotions begin to unravel as well. It can be disconcerting at first."

"I'd say that's an understatement." She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. How was she still breathing without a physical body? She glanced over her shoulder at Snape. "Apparently old habits die hard -- forgive the pun -- but there's no point in looming over me. I'm not a firstie, and I suspect we're not really at Hogwarts."

"I'm not looming, Granger." He frowned. "I'm merely standing."

There was a strange expression in his eyes, and Hermione had the impression she'd hurt his feelings. First her lack of concern over her family, and now she'd hurt Snape's feelings?

"Oh, this place is very weird," she muttered, then gestured toward the chair opposite hers. "Please, sit down, and you may as well call me Hermione."

They sat across from each other, silent but for the soft drumming of her fingers against the surface of the table. Snape wasn't volunteering information, and Hermione had so many questions whirling through her mind that she wasn't certain where to start. As the silence spun out, she tilted her head and looked him over.

Snape had been thirty-eight when he died, but he looked younger now.Thirty-five, her mind whispered, and she bit her lip against the inappropriate urge to laugh. The stark angles of his face and the hawkish nose remained the same, but the deep lines bracketing his mouth and on his forehead had been smoothed away. The dark circles under his eyes were gone, and his black hair was shiny with health rather than oil, flowing in a smooth cascade to his shoulders. His sallow skin had lost its ashen undertone, and whilst he was still lean, he was no longer the cadaverous figure she remembered. He wasn't a handsome man, by any means, but being freed from the burdens of his former life clearly agreed with him.

Her fingers ceased their restless movement. "What's it like, the next life?"

Snape shook his head slightly. "I can't describe it in a way you'd understand."

Instantly, her demeanour chilled. "As I said before, Professor, I'm no longer a schoolgirl. I'm one hundred and forty-six years old and perfectly capable of understanding anything you say."

"My name is Severus," he said quietly. "And your body still lives, even if only marginally so. As long as you remain alive, there are simply things you're incapable of understanding completely."

"Try, Severus," she insisted.

His dark eyes glinted with amusement, and he slowly tracing one long finger over his lips.

"Very well," he finally said. "In the next life, the vistas are more beautiful than anything you've ever seen or will ever see again, and yet each place is more stunning than the last. There are great libraries full of books that were never written about ideas that were never thought, and even if you read each one, you'll never read them all. The sum total of all knowledge is at your fingertips, and you'll know the answer to every question ever conceived, but you'll never know the answer to all questions." He raised an eyebrow and smirked. "I presume that last bit will be particularly frustrating for you. Shall I continue spouting what surely must seem to be paradoxical nonsense, or have I made my point?"

"Oh, all right." She huffed out an exasperated breath. "I see it's something that has to be experienced rather than explained. At least it's not going to be boring."

His eyebrows shot up. "Did you expect to be bored?"

She shrugged. "It's supposed to be perfect there, isn't it? That's what I was told as a child. I'm sure it appeals to some, but perpetual perfection always sounded perfectly boring to me."

He laughed, and her eyes widened. Severus Snape was laughing. It was something she'd never seen in life. It softened the harsh planes of his face and sweetened the curve of his lip. It made him... almost attractive.

Flustered, she lost her train of thought and blurted out the first question that popped into her mind. "Where did you wait when you died?"

"I waited here." He gestured around the library.

"Harry told me about King's Cross."

Severus took the apparent non sequitur in stride. "The setting is different for almost everyone."

"But not for you and me," she said slowly.

"No." He glanced away from her again. "Not for you and me."

She looked around the library at the rows of books waiting to be read, mulling over the implications of his statement. She'd always loved this library, and apparently, Severus had been fond of it, as well. Ron had been bored to distraction in any library once he'd exhausted all the Quidditch magazines.

"I was married to Ron for over a century," Hermione said suddenly. "If you and I are soul mates, then who was his?"

"Katie Bell," Severus answered.

Hermione searched her emotions for a pang of jealousy or insecurity at learning her husband had been better suited to another woman, but felt nothing other than acceptance.

"Katie Bell would have a good match for Ron," she finally said. "They both loved Quidditch, and I'm sure they would have shared other interests had she lived. She was killed during the battle at Hogwarts."

"Many people died that day," Severus said, his expression impassive.

"Yes, and you died that day, too," she said. "We applied for a posthumous Order of Merlin for you, you know. I prepared the report, and Harry presented it to the Wizengamot himself."

"They rejected the application," Severus said. It wasn't a question.

"Yes, they rejected it." Hermione sighed. "But we did try. I spent weeks on the research. I even spoke with Lucius Malfoy about you, although it took a direct threat by Minister Shacklebolt to make Malfoy do it. Even then, he'd only spare me a few minutes at The Leaky Cauldron."

Hermione resolutely ignored the Hag slurping soup at the next table and tapped her quill against the file spread open before her as she looked at the man seated across from her. "We've been told Professor Snape entered Hogwarts knowing more about the Dark Arts than most seventh year students. Is that true?"

Lucius Malfoy raised one delicate eyebrow. "The more accurate statement would be that Severus knew more about the Dark Arts than most seventh year Gryffindors. Certainly not more than most seventh year Slytherins. For a Ravenclaw, his mother did the best she could that regard."

"You mean his mother taught him the Dark Arts?" Aghast, Hermione's fingers tightened around the quill.

"Who else? " An edge of contempt entered Malfoy's voice. "Certainly not his Muggle father."

"But why would his mother do such a thing? That verges on abusive behav--"

"Abusive?" Lucius interrupted, and his pale grey gaze hardened. "Eileen Prince was a plain, awkward witch who bore a plain, awkward half-blood son. Severus was clearly bound for Slytherin House, and she knew the ridicule and derision that awaited him there. But she also knew that Slytherins respect power. She couldn't give her son beauty or grace or purity of blood, but she could give him power. By teaching Severus the Dark Arts, she was attempting to protect her son. Would any mother who loved her child do less?"

"I'll give Malfoy his due," Hermione said. "He was a bigoted, arrogant arse, but he gave me several things to think about."

Severus smiled faintly. "Lucius and Narcissa were my friends. I had few enough."

"If you'd survived, do you think we would have become friends?" Hermione asked. "If we're soul mates, surely it would have been inevitable."

"Not necessarily." He shook his head. "If I'd survived, I expect little would have changed. I would have spent the rest of my life pining for Lily and constantly comparing all other women unfavourably to her. I held onto the past so tightly I wouldn't allow myself the future."

"I saw the memories you left for Harry," Hermione said, giving him an apologetic look. "Malfoy told me a little about Lily, but I already knew."

"Then you know I ruined my friendship with her," Severus said.

Hermione waved that statement away. "You didn't do it alone. You insulted Lily, but you sincerely apologised afterwards. And I saw those memories, Severus. I saw her flirting with James Potter whilst you dangled in the air, choking on soap bubbles. Oh, you can have your share of the blame, but Lily deserves her share, too. You both made stupid mistakes, and your friendship broke under the strain of them. But you were children, and children make stupid mistakes."

Severus nodded slowly. "I realise that now, but at the time, it was impossible to see anything but my own feelings. Lily was genuinely happy with James Potter. She might have been content enough with me if I'd been a different man. But I wasn't a different man."

"Well, you're very different now," Hermione pointed out. "I can't imagine having this conversation with the Severus Snape I remember."

"And I only had to die to manage it," he said, his tone dry.

Hermione smiled with a mingled sense of delight and relief. Severus had a sense of humour, after all. Humour wasn't a quality she would have ascribed to him in life. Some of the insults she remembered hearing him fling at his students could be construed as amusing if one had a black sense of humour, but even the most innocuous had a cruel edge.

She steered the conversation back to their previous topic. "After I spoke with Lucius Malfoy, I managed to track down one of your Muggle relations, but he didn't know much about you as an adult."

"Yes, I know," Severus said, his expression turning sour, "and as usual, Bertram flirted outrageously. Even as a teenager, he fancied himself as irresistible to women. He was always deluded."

"How did you know I'd talked to your cousin Bertram?" Hermione asked, surprised.

"The same way I knew you'd spoken with Lucius; I watched over you throughout your lifetime," Severus answered.

"Watched over me?" Hermione propped one elbow on the table, resting her chin against the palm of her hand. "Like a guardian angel?"

He grimaced every so slightly. "I prefer the term protective entity."

Delighted at his reaction, she grinned. "Oh yes, I'm sure you do, but aren't you supposed to be dressed in white and have wings and a halo?" She leant forward, her expression overly innocent. "Are you certain you're a proper angel?"

He sniffed, disdainful. "As I recall, I never said I was a proper anything, and you're mired in Judeo-Christian imagery. I refuse to pander to stereotypes."

She laughed. "So how does being a protective entity work?"

"When one soul mate dies prior to the other, they watch over the survivor to provide guidance in times of crisis."

"How were you supposed to provide guidance?" Puzzled, she sat back in her chair. "You weren't a ghost. It wasn't as if you could talk to me."

"Actually, I could talk to you, but you were so stubborn-minded I had to shout before your subconscious would hear anything at all."

"Whenever did you try?" she asked, curious.

"I offered advice or other commentary," she snickered, but he ignored it, "at various times throughout your life, but I first tried speaking to you on the day Weasley proposed marriage. It didn't work, though. I shouted at you repeatedly to refuse him, but all you did was rub at your ear."

"That was you? I thought I had tinnitus." She suddenly went still, and her eyes rounded. "Wait a minute. If you were watching me, does that mean you were there all the time?" Her voice rose an octave. "Even when I was alone? Even when Ron and I were--"

"Not watching. Watching over," Snape interrupted. "I certainly had no prurient interest, especially in your sex life. The sight of Ron Weasley's arse earnestly bobbing up and down was hardly the stuff of erotic fantasy."

Torn between being embarrassed and affronted, she glared. "You saw me naked."

"Many times." A smirk ghosted over his face, then he winced. "Although, I could have done without witnessing the horrors of childbirth. I certainly saw more than I would wish in that case."

She spluttered for a moment. "That's rude. And what's this 'more than you would wish' nonsense? You said you had no prurient interest."

"The occasional admiring glance is not prurient. It's merely," his long fingers fluttered in a sketchy gesture, "appreciative. You could hardly expect me not to look. That's too much restraint to ask, even from a dead man."

Hermione gaped. Snape had paid her a compliment and teased her, all at the same time.

"Well, I hope you weren't bored," she said faintly.

"Not often, no. Admittedly, I paid little attention when your children were small," he said. "It wasn't the most scintillating period of your life. For approximately five years, it seemed the only words you spoke were "Is your nappy dirty again?" "No, Ron, I'm too tired," and repeated recitations of Incy Wincy Spider."

Hermione opened her mouth to protest, but closed it abruptly. She remembered when her children were small and wondering if she'd ever have an adult conversation again. She finally shrugged in resignation.

"Yes, well, it did get better," she said.

"It did," he agreed. "I followed your career with interest. You were successful on several levels. Rising to Head of the Wizengamot is quite an accomplishment, particularly for a Muggle-born."

"I was the first," she said, smiling.

"Your family was extremely proud of you."

"Yes, they were. Ron, in particular, couldn't resist bragging. He always said I could out-argue anyone." She tilted her head at a sudden thought. "Was Katie Bell there with you? If you watched me, then she must have watched Ron. Did you talk to her?"

"She was there, but my awareness of her was limited, just as her awareness of me was limited. Our purpose was to watch over our soul mates, not to converse with each other."

"She wasn't jealous of the time I spent with Ron?"

"No," he replied. "And is that your way of asking if I succumbed to jealousy?"

"Did you?" She arched an eyebrow.

"Only when Weasley was reunited with his soul mate before I was reunited with you." He quirked a wry smile. "I had been waiting longer."

"Only a few minutes longer," Hermione said dryly, then she shrugged. "I have to admit you're taking all of this remarkably well. I'd have though you'd be angry at learning I was your soul mate. You really didn't like me very much."

"I didn't like anyone very much," he said with the ghost of a smile. "I was somewhat disturbed at first by the news -- you were a former student -- but I've had over a century to come to terms with the situation. Seeing firsthand that we're compatible helped a great deal. In life, we enjoyed the same pursuits. We were loyal to the point of idiocy until our particular interests were threatened, and neither of us suffered fools gladly. There was much we could have learnt from each other."

His gaze slid away from hers. "You're also a vibrant, intelligent woman. Anyone would be honoured to learn you're their soul mate."

"Thank you." She smiled and tried to catch his eye, but he continued to look away. Puzzled, she sat back, and glanced down. He gripped the edge of the table with one hand, tension evident in the taut ligaments and fingertips pressed hard against the wood.

Why was he so tense? It was almost as if he was afraid... Her lips parted in a silent O of understanding. He was afraid she would reject him. That's why he wouldn't meet her eyes when he'd told her they were soul mates or as he complimented her now. He'd been rejected all his life, and the expectation of it was so ingrained that he waited for it even now, even here in the safest of places.

She studied the proud man in front of her, and a fierce, protective feeling blossomed in her heart. Severus Snape had spent his life in penance to a childhood sweetheart. He had died in an effort to rid the world of a monster, and without a doubt, he held the key to all the passion that had been missing from her life. He shouldn't be afraid of rejection any longer.

Hermione reached across the table and placed her hand lightly over his. Startled, his dark eyes shot up to meet hers, and she smiled.

"I believe I'm going to enjoy getting to know you, and I have no doubts that we'll be happy together."

Hermione's heart clenched at the hopeful expression that suddenly flared in his eyes. Perfection in the next life or no, she intended to give Lily Potter a piece of her mind at the first opportunity, and she had a few sharp words reserved for Albus Dumbledore, too.

"I only wish we'd known that we were soul mates whilst we were both still alive," Hermione continued. "Things would have turned out so differently."

"But not necessarily for the best," Severus said, a trace of regret colouring his tone. "You were my student, only a child when I knew you, and the situation would have been awkward for both of us. At best, you would have been favoured, and at worst, pilloried to prevent the appearance of favouritism. I most certainly would have protected you rather than Potter, and then been so distracted by your presence during my dying moments that it's doubtful I would have given Potter the necessary memories. All in all, an unmitigated disaster for the Wizarding world, don't you think?"

"I hadn't considered it that way," she said.

His expression turned thoughtful. "Though perhaps my subconscious knew the basics: a bright, Muggle-born girl. Maybe that's why I was so drawn to Lily." He raised an eyebrow. "After all, you were late."

"Late?" She blinked.

"I was born twenty years before you," he pointed out, but there was no acid in his voice, and he smiled faintly. "Perhaps souls wait in a queue to be born. If so, I have no doubt you were reading and spent those twenty years saying, "I'll be there in a tick. Just one more chapter!""

She smiled. "Or maybe you were early."

"Do you honestly believe I was in a rush to arrive at the particular life I lived?"

"You have a point." Her smile turned rueful. "If it's any consolation, I promise I'll never be late again."

"That's considerate, but it's no longer an issue."

"Why not?"

"Because we've lived our lives, Hermione, and they're over," he reminded her gently. "Now all we can do is move forward."

She stood up so abruptly that her chair scraped against the floor with a grating sound. Her hands went to her hips, and she narrowed her eyes.

"But that's not fair!" she insisted. "We weren't given a chance. We had no real opportunity to get to know one another. Whoever heard of soul mates separated before they could even become friends? That's just shoddy management. When we get out of this library, I intend to speak to someone and get that sorted out."

He rose to face her and lifted one eyebrow in question. "Someone?"

"The person in charge." She waved her hand in a vague gesture.

He snorted. "Good luck with that. I suspect you'll finally encounter someone you can't out-argue."

"You think I can't do it?" Her mouth set in a stubborn line.

"I think you'll try," he answered, smiling. "You've never been one to give up once you put your mind to something."

A sudden glow behind him drew her attention, and she looked past him, her eyes widening.

"Severus," she pointed, "is that it?"

He turned to see a simple, arched doorway standing where none existed in the real Hogwarts' library. There was no supporting wall, no beams to hold it up, just a door waiting to be opened.

"Yes, that's it." He took her hand and drew her to his side. "Are you ready?"

She took a deep breath and nodded.

"You'll have to open the door yourself," he said. "No one can do it for you."

Hermione looked up at Severus and laced her fingers through his. "Let's go through together."

"All right," he said, smiling.

She hesitated only a fraction of a second, then raised her free hand, reaching out to touch the satiny wood. Instantly, the door swung open and golden light flooded the room.

Hermione held onto Severus' hand tightly, and as they stepped through the doorway into the next life, she murmured, "And we'll just see about this out-arguing business."


Solomon Keene stood at the edge of the playground, shoulders hunched and thin fingers unconsciously plucking at the frayed hem of his t-shirt. The wind stirred his black hair, and his dark eyes tracked the pretty girl bouncing a bright orange ball with her sister. He'd been watching her for days, trying to get the nerve to approach her. Her green eyes flashed as she laughed, and her dark auburn hair shone in the warm June sunlight. Amanda Sutton was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen, and he was determined to talk to her. The problem was that she was never alone. Her sister or other friends always accompanied her.

He gathered his courage, took a deep breath and stepped forward, only to stop short when a strange girl planted herself in his path. Her mass of light brown hair was pulled back with a clip, but escaped tendrils writhed in the wind and formed a wispy halo around her head.

"You're a wizard, aren't you?" she blurted out.

Surprised, he scowled at her. "Who are you?"

"I'm Hortensia Miller, and I'm a witch. Aren't you a wizard?"

Solomon looked her up and down. She wore jeans and trainers like his, but hers were new and expensive, not worn and second-hand. She was also bobbing on the balls of her feet, nearly vibrating with excitement. If she wasn't careful, she'd lose control of her magic. As it was, he could see stray sparks flickering at her fingertips.

"Calm down," he snapped. "You're not supposed to blurt it out like that. What if I'd been a plain old Muggle?"

"But you aren't." Her expression grew self-satisfied. She stopped fidgeting, and slowly the magic stopped leaking from her fingers. "What's your name?"

"Solomon Keene." His eyes narrowed. "How did you know I'm a wizard?"

"I don't know." She shrugged. "I saw you, and I just knew." She turned and looked across the playground. "I've been watching you, and you've been watching her. Why? Do you know her? Is she a witch, too?"

He scowled, wishing this girl would go away; she was interfering in his plans.

"Do you always ask so many questions? She's a Muggle, and I know her name," he said grudgingly. His gaze returned to Amanda. "She's pretty."

"I'm pretty," Hortensia said.

He snorted and shot her a scornful look. "She's prettier than you."

"That's rude," Hortensia retorted. She pouted for a moment, but he watched out of the corner of his eye, and he saw the exact moment her curiosity overwhelmed her hurt feelings.

"Are you already at Hogwarts? I can't wait for the school year to start. I want to learn everything."

Solomon sighed. She was never going away, was she? He gave up and turned toward her.

"It's my first year, too," he said.

"I've already read all of my books." She was so pleased with herself he was surprised she didn't burst from it. "The Ministry of Magic sent a representative to our house with my Hogwarts letter, and she took us all into Diagon Alley. My parents bought my books and my wand."

"I have my wand, too." He scowled again. "But I have to wait for my books until my dad gets paid next."

"Oh." Hortensia looked stricken. Clearly she considered it a terrible misfortune to have to wait for books. So did he, for that matter.

"Well," she said slowly, dragging the word out, "I suppose I could let you see my books if you wanted."

Solomon scoffed. "Why would I want to see them? I can look at them through the window at Flourish and Blotts anytime I want." His gaze turned speculative. "But if you lent me your books until I get my own, I could teach you how to use your wand. I already know how to do spells."

"You do?" She was visibly impressed, and then her brow furrowed. "But we aren't allowed to use magic outside of Hogwarts. It's against the rules."

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. "You're Muggle-born, so you wouldn't know how it works. My mum's a witch, and she said they only track magic to a place, not to a person. That's why she could teach me how to use a wand. We'll go to The Leaky Cauldron. It's always full of witches and wizards, and the Ministry won't know it's us using magic there."

"Can't we just go to your house?" she asked. "Is your mum home?"

His expression shuttered, and his fingers restlessly plucked again at the ragged hem of his shirt.

"No. You can't come to my house," he said, his tone going flat. "It's The Leaky Cauldron or nothing."

Hortensia mulled that over, pursing her lips in thought.

"All right," she said. "If you'll teach me how to use my wand, I'll lend you my books. But you have to promise to be careful with them. My parents would go spare if I lost them."

He shot her a contemptuous glance. "I know how to take care of books."

"When do you want to go?" she asked.

"When can I borrow your books?" he shot back.

"Now, if you like. I only live over there." She pointed across the playground. "I have to go in for lunch in a few minutes, anyway. You can have lunch with me. My mum and dad are at work, but my Gran's there."

Dubious, Solomon shook his head, but Hortensia just kept talking.

"We'll have lunch, and you can have the books after. Then we'll decide when to go to The Leaky Cauldron." She nodded once as if everything was decided.

"Won't your Gran be angry that you've brought someone for lunch without permission?" he asked.

"No, she's always saying I should have more friends." Hortensia's hands went to her hips, and her head tilted slightly back and to the right. He instinctively knew she was mimicking her Gran. "We're having roast beef sandwiches…."

At that, Solomon wavered. "I like roast beef."

Hortensia leant forward, her expression cajoling. "There'll be crisps, too, and chocolate biscuits."

He relented. "Okay, let's go."

With a gleam of triumph in her eyes, Hortensia smiled and led the way across the playground. As they walked, they skirted the area where Amanda and her sister played.

The sister bounced the ball hard, and Amanda raced to catch it, but it flew past her grasp. The ball hit the ground, bobbing erratically, then rolling into the shrubbery a few feet ahead of Solomon.

He froze. He was vaguely aware that Hortensia had continued walking, but his attention was riveted on that bright splash of orange, half-hidden amidst the shrubbery. Amanda was approaching, her head down, scanning for the ball. All he had to do was walk over, pick up the ball and take it to her. It was the perfect opportunity. Once they started talking, he was certain he could convince Amanda to spend the afternoon with him. He could talk to Hortensia any time. He frowned at that thought. Well, probably not. She'd be offended that he chose another girl over her. If the tables were turned, he certainly wouldn't forgive such an insult.

Up ahead, Hortensia called back to him. "Solomon, come on!"

Amanda's head went up, and she glanced toward Hortensia, then looked at Solomon. She smiled.

Solomon stood poised midway betwixt the two girls, his gaze darting back and forth between them. A sense of unease swept over him. He didn't understand why, but he knew this choice was important.

"Solomon, do hurry!" Hortensia called again. "It's almost noon, and I promised I'd never be late again."

At her words, something inexplicable clicked into place in his mind, and the tightness in his chest eased. He sighed and turned toward Hortensia, taking long strides to catch up with her. It was the books, he told himself. He really wanted to read those books.

"Are you always such a bossy cow?" he asked when he reached her side.

"Yes," she replied tartly. "Are you always such a rude pillock?"

"Yes." He smirked, mildly impressed that she didn't hesitate to insult him back.

They grinned at each other, and Hortensia grabbed Solomon by the hand, tugging.

"Well, come on," Hortensia said. "I want you to teach me all about magic."

Solomon glanced over his shoulder at Amanda, then walked with Hortensia toward the edge of the playground.

He never looked back again.

Author's Note: Thank you to my betas, GinnyWeasley31 and Whitemunin, without whom this story would not have been written. Written as a gift for the sshgexchange LJ community.