Disclaimer in Chapter One
Hermione's heart began to pound. She barely recognised the man in front of her; he had traded his oppressive black for robes of dark grey, which were shot through with silver thread. His scowl was familiar, but the lines on his face were neither as plentiful or severe as she remembered. He was neither Professor Snape nor Severus, and yet both. 'You-' she began.
'Yes, me,' he said testily. 'Let's just pretend that you gawped at me like a beached perch, then were rebuffed when you attempted to fling yourself into my arms, which, I'd like to point out, are not waiting. After ten minutes of weepy hysterics and name-calling, you finally calmed down enough to invite me to speak with you in whatever part of this godforsaken castle you call home.'
Hermione's mouth snapped shut. He certainly sounded like Professor Snape, and he was very obviously trying to intimidate her. However, he seemed to have forgotten that she'd spent a year fighting Dark Wizards. Her sense of awe was further dulled by having seen him suspended nude over the Malfoys' bathtub. 'You do realise that sending me an owl would have been a far simpler way of having a conversation with me.'
'I hope you'll pardon my current aversion to your writing,' he sneered in response. 'Between your needlessly discursive Potions essays and your scrawling all over my private property, I've seen enough of it to last me a lifetime. And what the devil do you think you're doing?'
Her head was slightly tilted, trying to catch a glimpse of his neck where Nagini's bite had been. 'It's hardly scarred at all. It'll have faded completely in a year or two.'
'Have you heard a word I've said, idiot girl?' he asked, pulling himself up to his full height.
Hermione felt an extraordinary lightness, as if she were floating. He was healthy, he was in full possession of his mind, and he had come to see her. Not even his characteristically sharp tongue could distract her from those facts. 'Sorry,' she said, 'I wasn't aware that you'd said anything that required a response.'
He stared at her in unflattering disbelief. 'You-!' he sputtered.
'Yes, me,' she said, unable to keep amusement from her voice. 'Impertinent, obnoxious, know-it-all. I'd continue, but my thesaurus is at my parents'.'
He was still looking at her as if she'd grown a second head, and Hermione wondered if she'd made a mistake to treat him as informally she had Severus. The last thing she wanted was for him to leave without explaining why he'd come. She decided to err on the side of caution.
'I beg your pardon, sir, you did say something about taking this conversation somewhere private. If you'll follow me, my room is this way.'
'No,' he said, his expression hardening. 'Perhaps there's someplace closer? More neutral?'
Hermione was shocked to recognise the emotion emanating from him as nervousness. 'Did you have somewhere specific in mind?' she asked, doing her best to keep the curiosity out of her voice.
'Yes,' he said, pulling on his cloak. His invisible hand seized the sleeve of her robe and began towing her down the stairs to the castle.
'Stop pulling so hard!' she hissed. 'People will think I'm Lady MacBeth!'
Her admonishment had the desired effect, and he slowed down.
She knew where he was taking her long before they arrived. When they stopped by dancing trolls' tapestry, the prima ballerina paused in the midst of her 'dying swan' to wave merrily at them.
The silvery door appeared, and Severus led her into the Room of Lost Dreams.
He closed the door behind her and removed his Invisibility Cloak once more.
Hermione was unable to control the burning flush that spread across her cheeks, remembering the last time she'd been in the room with him. 'This is your idea of somewhere more neutral?'
'Spare me the virginal blushing, Miss Granger.'
'It wasn't virginal,' she retorted, refusing to let her discomfiture get the better of her. 'Why here?'
'I should think it obvious. I want to ravish you against the wall and fill your head with sweet nothings. Isn't that what you want from me?'
'Not like this!' she snapped, nettled by his sarcasm. Obviously, her Severus had told him what had developed between them. She made a Herculean effort to hold back the mortified tears that were stinging her eyes. 'And I didn't mean to ask why you brought me here, I meant to ask, why did you hide it here, of all places?'
'Do you know how one enters this room, Hermione?'
His use of her given name made her weaker in the knees than she cared to admit. She forced herself to think for a moment. 'My guess is that you have to express altruistic sentiment. The room wouldn't admit someone bent on blackmail, surely.'
'So nearly a complete answer,' he said, pacing a slow circuit around the room. 'The Room of Lost Dreams can only be accessed by someone whose foremost thoughts are not on their own dreams, but on someone else's.'
Hermione gave a hollow laugh. 'Is that all?'
'Have you any idea how rare a thing that is in this school? In the thousand years of Hogwarts's existence, and of the hundreds of thousands who have passed through this hallway, unaware that in doing so they left behind a record of their deepest, most secret desires, only a handful of people have ever seen this room. And yet, here stand two of them.'
In spite of her embarrassment, Hermione's mind was still attempting to put the pieces together. If Severus had brought the Potions journal he had compiled and enchanted for Lily into the Room of Lost Dreams, it only made sense that it was his concern for her dreams that had allowed him to access the room. He must have seen something here that made him despair enough to sunder his heart and leave the book behind.
'Please, sir, why did you leave it here for all this time?'
He didn't even blink. 'I hadn't much use for it, and neither did its intended recipient.'
'I didn't mean the journal,' she said.
He glared at her. 'Neither did I.'
Hermione was silent for a moment before her curiosity got the better of her. 'Please sir, what have you done with it?'
He pulled the familiar notebook from his robes and handed it to her. 'See for yourself.'
The moment her fingers closed over the cover, she knew her Severus was gone. There was no flicker of awareness, and she felt its loss keenly. She opened its cover and found its pages filled with Potions recipes, instructions, and diagrams, painstakingly printed. Her rational mind pointed out that it would be useful in her lycanthropy research, but her grief at losing the Severus she loved was raw, and was compressed with every beat of her heart into something that felt like fury.
'If you came all this way just to give me a guide to the effing art of Potions brewing, you can go back to the Malfoys. Your debt is repaid in full. Unless you have something else to say to me, leave me the hell alone.'
Her anger seemed to surprise him, but he quickly covered it with his habitual scowl. 'You needlessly complicate things by denigrating that which I offer in payment of a debt,' he said stiffly. 'Given that Potions tutelage is the least of my debts to you, I can only conclude that you wish to hold a favour in reserve until you need it. However, I owe favours to a great many people, so things would be greatly simplified if you could tell me what must be done to settle our account.'
Her distaste must have shown on her face, because Severus was still scowling down his nose at her.
'Come now, Miss Granger. Surely you can think of something you'd like as an even trade for something that's worth as little to you as my life? A lifetime supply of hair serum, perhaps?'
'I don't expect anything from you!' she exclaimed, exasperated. 'You came to Hogwarts when all you needed to do was owl me the journal, and you've yet to offer any sensible reason for doing so. You've offered me only insults and turned what I did out of concern for you into a business transaction. I don't know what you expect to gain from it, unless it's to make me stay away from you, but I was already doing that. Why, Severus? What do you want from me?'
His scowl faded into inscrutability, and he approached her, stopping a metre or two away. Again, she could sense his unease. 'You loved me once,' he said uncertainly.
His anxiety was not enough to make her forget the dead book that was still clutched in her hand. 'I loved once,' she said, 'but I've not seen any sign that it was you I loved.'
He blinked in surprise, and Hermione thought she saw understanding flash in his eyes.
'You little idiot,' he said at last.
Hermione was torn between taking offence at the insult and fighting down the absurd sense of hope that flared to life at the warmth in his voice. She chose to remain silent.
'I suppose it may have been a bit much for me to assume that you'd grasped the full importance of the fact that someone incapable of valuing someone else's happiness over his own couldn't enter this room. You've had something of a shock, which I suppose accounts for your uncharacteristically sluggish analysis of the situation, but I do hope that in light of this, you'll absolve me of killing your paramour.'
Between his proximity and the gravity of his implication, Hermione had to sit. She collapsed in the chair by the fire and stared up at him, her eyes wide with wonder. 'You did it. You put yourself back together again.'
'I'd give points if such a conclusion didn't imply a thorough grounding in darkest magic.'
'I'd accept points if you still had the authority to grant them,' said Hermione, hardly daring to believe her ears. 'It must have been incredibly painful.'
'It was hardly so dire as that.'
'Wasn't it? People have died trying to re-attach split souls, and the heart is a great deal more sensitive. And beyond the shock of rejoining, getting used to it, especially in the aftermath of a war…' she trailed off lamely. 'I can't imagine what you've been through in these past months.'
'I will not insult your intelligence by telling you that my reconciliation has been simple or easy. Fortunately, my physical wounds were severe enough for Lucius and Narcissa to mistakenly assume that they were the cause of my excessively vituperative personality.'
The apparent understatement made her smile. 'As compared to your regularly vituperative personality?'
He approached her, scrutinising her face. She was surprised to see the eyes that had so often looked at her with calumny shining with something entirely different. 'In the time I have had to closely observe the heart, I conclude that it's an incredibly stubborn organ.'
'And not terribly sensible,' she agreed. 'This room is filled with evidence to support your conclusion.'
'Indeed. However, my recent study uncovered an intriguing complication.'
Hermione rose from her chair, hardly aware that she had done so. To her surprise, the man before her seemed to be nearly as drawn her as she was to him. She felt as though the room were spinning around her and only she and Severus were stationary in the centre.
'What sort of complication?'
He cleared his throat. 'The stubborn organ seems to be labouring under the delusion that it belongs not to me but to someone else.'
Hermione was unable to contain a joyful smile. 'Nature abhors a vacuum and strives for equilibrium, Severus' she said. 'It stands to reason that if your heart has left you, that someone else's heart has taken its place.'
'Past experimentation has not proved that hypothesis to be true,' he said, his expression darkening.
She laid her hand on his forearm. 'Surely a single experiment is insufficient to prove or disprove any hypothesis. Any number of factors might have caused it to fail. What's important, I think, is trying it again.'
'Given that you and my heart have been conspiring against me, I shouldn't be surprised that your advice and its are nearly identical. Do you know what the dratted thing made me promise before it agreed to return to its rightful place?'
'That the next time you make plans to cheat death you leave more detailed information of how to revive you?'
Severus's smile would have been indistinguishable from a smirk but for the way the corners of his eyes crinkled. 'Nothing so sensible as that. Apparently, overexposure to Gyffindor sentimentality has dulled it somewhat. It made me promise to listen to it occasionally.'
He was standing so close to her that she caught a whiff of balsam, and a pert reply died on her tongue. 'What's it telling you on this occasion?'
'That perhaps the heart isn't quite as stupid as its reputation suggests.'
She smiled wryly at him. 'Hardly a glowing commendat-'
Before she could finish her sentence, he had closed the space between them, and his lips were pressed against hers. His kiss had none of the desperation that Severus's had, but all of its warmth and tenderness. His mouth felt achingly familiar and yet somehow utterly new. He broke the kiss far too soon for her liking.
'Are you satisfied now, Hermione?' he asked, his voice rough around the edges.
She blinked, waiting for the room to quit spinning. 'What do you mean?'
He sighed impatiently. 'Gryffindors. You previously expressed hope for a sign that it was me you loved, and not simply a book with a penchant for mind-reading. One hopes you are not so lacking in empathy as to keep in suspense one so recently reconciled with his heart.'
She raised her eyes to his face, gazing in turn at each of his stubborn, sharp features, and weighing in her mind everything she knew about this infuriating man against what she knew of his heart. 'I think,' she began slowly, 'that one should approach such decisions scientifically. While our previous experimentation has been enormously successful, I suggest for the sake of reproducibility, we widen our sample before attempting to draw any conclusions.'
He stared at her in disbelief for a moment, then gathered her into his arms, holding her tightly against him, his hands gently stroking her back and hair, as if afraid of breaking her. She could hear his heart hammering in his chest, and rather than speak he pressed his lips to the top of her head, which sent a shudder through her radiating out from the epicentre where his lips had touched her.
Her breath caught in her throat, and he loosened his hold enough to look down into her face. His eyes were shining again, though he cleared his throat gruffly. 'In that case, I think it would be wise to discuss our future research plans. Perhaps after dinner at Chateau de Malfoy?'
The spark of wicked humour in his eye made her suspicious. 'You're not only inviting me to dinner to vex Narcissa, are you?'
A ghost of a smile lifted the corner of his mouth as he kissed her forehead. 'Slytherin lesson number one: we never have only one motive.'
They managed to extricate themselves from the Room of Lost Dreams after only half an hour's additional experimentation. Hermione was in her room changing out of her Weasley jumper, and Severus was shrouded in his Invisibility Cloak, waiting for her by the dancing troll tapestry.
The prima ballerina troll tottered to the edge of the tapestry nearest him. 'Glad to see you whole again,' she said, propping an overlarge foot on the barre and stretching gracelessly. 'Not that I'd have let you in if you weren't.'
'I suppose I have you to thank for this,' grumbled Severus.
'All in a century's work, dearie' said the troll, cheekily. 'I knew she'd be able to set you right. Another happily ever after for me!'
'We're only going to dinner. Isn't your cackling a bit premature?'
'Silly boy. I see what's in you both. It's one of the perks of being a Doorkeeper.'
'Then why didn't you refuse me entry when you knew my heart was vulnerable?'
The troll began a series of increasingly lower plies. 'Sometimes you need to lose something for a while in order to appreciate it when it returns.'
'It could have been lost to me forever.'
She paused in her plies to point at herself. 'Doorkeeper, remember? I feel the death of every dream that comes to live in my room forever. Your desire to be loved in return was never one of those. All right, it made a few dramatic entrances and exits, but that's how I knew someone would come for your heart one day.'
Severus snorted. 'You mean to say you knew that in twenty years a student mad enough to love me would arrive at Hogwarts?'
'It was only a matter of time,' said the troll primly.
'Clotilde!' came a grunting voice from across the tapestry. 'Quit your blithering and get over here!'
She sighed. 'Wulfgar's so demanding these days. Did you ever know Wulfgar? He's in charge of the Room of Requirement. Still, it's a welcome return to form. That Longbottom boy taxed him awfully by living in there for months with his little gang. So many demands to keep straight! Wulfgar hardly had the strength to rehearse our pas de deux and he kept dropping me.'
'My heart bleeds for you,' said Severus blandly.
'Rude, isn't he?' commented another female troll, whose tutu was blackened around the edges.
'He's all right, Blumengarde. Recently reacquainted with his heart, that's all.'
'I ought to be put out that it was in your room and not mine,' said Blumengarde with a scowl. 'Hidden Things are my jurisdiction, not yours.'
'Don't mind her,' said Clotilde to Severus. 'She's just put out because all her Hidden Things got razed by Fiendfyre.'
'That collection was centuries old!' wailed Blumgenarde.
'You'll have centuries to rebuild it to twice its splendour, I'm sure,' said Clotilde comfortingly. 'Now, be a dear and let the rest of the corps know that we'll be starting from the top after Wulfgar and I run our bit in the second act.'
'Clotilde! Dance with me now before I club you!' shouted Wulfgar, stomping his foot.
Clotilde's cheeks were pink. 'He does so love Requiring me to do things. Enjoy yourself, dearie. I don't want to see any of your dreams in my Room again.'
Severus glanced down the hall and saw Hermione walking very quickly towards him. She was wearing something made of pewter-coloured silk that fluttered about her ankles. Her face was lit with a dazzling smile, and Severus felt an odd sort of ache in his chest.
'I rather suspect you won't,' he murmured to the tapestry.
Notes: Come now, surely you suspected the trolls! Enormous thanks to Mr. 42, the best beta-reader, idea bouncee, and inventor of Germanic sounding names in the entire world. I don't know where I'd be without your skill, patience, and support! Thanks to Maliciouspixie5 for allowing me to run roughshod all over her prompt and to shiv5468, ginnyweasley31, scatteredlogic, mollyssister, southernwitch69, and keladrylupin for all their hard work at the exchange. You ladies make the world go'round!