PART SEVENTEEN – Wherein Severus Snape demonstrates that he is now a Better Person and makes astonishing predictions about Hermione's future
If the Prime Minister had come to see her at no.12, Grimmauld Place, Hermione couldn't have been more surprised.
'Is Mr Potter at home?' Severus asked, casting a suspicious look into the half-lit entrance hall.
'Did you come to see Harry?' Hermione didn't quite know what to think; she wasn't going to bid the Potions master a kind good evening, however, because he hadn't bothered to greet her either.
'No, I came to see you, but if Potter's there as well…'
'It's his house, he has every right to be there. Anyway, he's gone out with Ron and George, which means that he probably won't be back till the small hours of the morning. And when he comes home, he won't be in a state to recognize you.' Severus nodded, but didn't move or say anything. The look on his face was both forbidding and contemptuous, probably because he'd been forced to talk about Harry, she thought. 'Well,' she finally said, 'Would you like to come in, or what? It's cold, so I don't intend to remain here for long.'
'I need to talk to you.'
'Come in then,' Hermione said impatiently. Then, seeing his haunted expression, she added, more kindly, 'It's very much changed. No ghosts to haunt you. We even managed to take off Mrs Black's portrait and store it in the cellar.'
'What would you know about ghosts,' he said, but it lacked venom. He sounded absent and uneasy.
'More than you can probably imagine,' Hermione replied dryly. 'Now come in, I'm going to make us some tea. Would you like to wait in the library?'
He nodded, wordlessly, and strode to the library without another look at her.
Hermione went down to the kitchen and mechanically prepared the tea, while her thoughts ceaselessly circled around the presence of her former teacher, his strange behaviour and his need to talk to her. Her affair with Lucius seemed like the most probable subject; she decided that she wasn't going to answer any questions he might have.
When she returned to the library, Severus was examining the annotations she'd made while reading an Arithmancy book. 'Additional light reading,' he muttered.
'I've never believed in knowing only what's in the textbooks,' Hermione said, while she poured their tea. 'Even if I'm only preparing for an exam, I like to…' She caught his mocking look and shrugged. 'I suppose I don't need to tell you.'
'No, you certainly don't. My memories of your Potions homework are still fresh in my mind.'
'What did you want to talk to me about?' she asked, when he'd sat down and accepted a mug.
His eyes wandering around the room, he avoided looking at her. 'Now that I'm here, I'm not sure it was such a good idea.'
'I suppose we'll only find out if we actually talk. But you do seem a little uneasy, Prof- er, Severus. Is it just the house, or…' She broke off in mid-sentence, because he was suddenly glowering at her.
'Kindly cease your attempts at meaningless blabbing, Miss Granger.'
'Oh, I see we're back at last names. Very well then, Mr Snape. Either you tell me what it is you want to talk to me about, or I suggest you leave, after you've finished your tea of course – I wouldn't want to be a bad hostess.'
'Lucius seems to be taking his task of polishing you quite seriously. You already talk like him.'
Swallowing her anger, Hermione leaned back and crossed her legs. 'It's not a bad thing, I think. A bit of that elegant arrogance won't do me any harm. I assure you I'm clever enough to take only what I think useful – healthy eclecticism, you might call it. If you choose to call it polishing, feel free to do so.'
'That's what he chose to call it.'
'Mr Snape, he told me about your conversation. So kindly don't try to sow discordance between us. It's not going to work, not that way at least.'
Severus drank some tea without taking his eyes off her. 'I presume he introduced you to Maître Belcheveu.'
She passed a hand over her head. 'I think short hair suits me.'
'I wasn't attempting to start a conversation on hairstyles.'
'No,' she said briskly, 'I don't think that's your field of expertise. Look, Mr Snape' – she put down her mug and leaned forward, her elbows on her knees – 'if you've come here to lecture me about Lucius, you're wasting your time. If it's something else, I'd suggest you just say it.'
Severus inclined his head in mute acknowledgement of her words. 'I see. Well then, Miss Granger, I have come here to tell you that I'm not going to work with you on Lucius's project.'
'That's a pity, because there won't be any project without you. And I have to say, I don't quite understand your sudden change of heart.'
'I…' He paused, then seemed to come to a decision and continued, 'I wasn't very interested in the first place and merely agreed to collaborate because I thought it would give me the opportunity to keep an eye on you. And Mr Potter,' he added, with a pinched expression.
'To keep an eye… Are you saying that you meant to protect me, or us, from Lucius's sinister schemes?'
'That would be the gist of it, yes. But then, I…' He sighed deeply and crossed his arms. 'I realized that I'd spent half my life looking after ungrateful brats, and that I really don't want to waste my time anymore on people who won't even recognize what I do for them.'
'Good for you,' Hermione said, smiling at him. 'It's time you lived a life of your own. But… I'm sure you won't like the question, but what about the, well, financial aspect? As far as I know, you don't have a job or anything.'
'No, I don't. But I have decided to leave England. There used to be a tradition in the old times – Muggles had it too, I believe – of young men travelling and learning their profession. I may not be a young man anymore, and I certainly am no apprentice, but I'm also well aware that I still have a lot to learn. Besides, potions are needed everywhere, so I suppose I'll be able to make a decent living selling them. For a start, I do have some money.' He gave her a sharp look. 'It wasn't honourably acquired, but as Tiberius said, Non Olet. It's not much, and I sent her 200 galleons back to Mrs Westkin, but the rest is mine, and I intend to put it to good use.'
'You'll be lonely,' Hermione said tonelessly.
'Yes, I will. But I am by nature a solitary creature. And maybe you're aware, in spite of your youth and lack of experience, that the solitude of a wanderer is quite different from the loneliness you experience when isolation is forced upon you by others.'
'I know what you mean, of course. And I can understand… Sometimes,' she said, feeling a sudden and inexplicable rush of affection for this dark, inaccessible man, 'I feel exactly the same. I had this talk with Harry, three days ago… About friendship, and about the need to re-establish boundaries between us – he's struggling with it, because he thinks he's going to lose me and Ron… And while we were talking, I felt this strong urge to go and live elsewhere. Not to leave England – you're in a very different position there – but to move out of this house, which is so crowded with the past and with dead people that the living scarcely have any space to breathe.'
'You could…' He cleared his throat. 'That is, if you really mean to leave Grimmauld Place, I'd offer you my flat, for rent if you want.'
'Really?' Her smile was so beatific that he just had to smile back. 'Oh, that would be wonderful – of course I'll pay you rent, that would give you a regular income.'
'I won't ask much,' Severus said. 'But I'm sure you won't accept just living there without paying for it. You're right though, a small basic income won't hurt.'
'Lucius is going to miss you terribly.'
'Miss Granger, I'm aware that you're happy with my offer, and basking in the glow of your, erm, relationship with Lucius, but that's no excuse for your infantile sentimentality. Rest assured that Lucius is not going to miss me.'
'Why is it,' she snapped, suddenly and unaccountably angry, 'that you just can't accept this simple truth: Lucius likes you, and he's going to miss you. If it didn't sound so stupid, I'd say he loves you. He's your friend, why can't you acknowledge that?'
Severus shook his head. 'I appreciate the effort, Miss Granger, but trust me on this: Lucius doesn't love. It would be better if you abandoned any hopes you might be nourishing.'
'I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about you! He deeply cares for you, is that so horrible?'
'He might have, a long time ago. Not now though.'
'Why? What makes you think so?'
'Don't play dumb, Miss Granger. I betrayed him.'
'I think you're completely wrong there. No, let me finish,' she said, when Severus opened his mouth to interrupt her. 'I know you won't believe it, because you think I'm a silly chit of a girl and Lucius is nothing but a cold, superficial shark in human form. To a certain degree, you're of course right: I'm only just over eighteen, and Lucius is a sneaky bastard. He's calculating, and self-serving, and his morals, if you can call them by that name, are dubious, to say the least. So, as I said, I know you won't believe it, but Lucius and I don't just fuck all day long, we actually talk a lot. About everything, which happens to include you. Of course he resents your betrayal. But he doesn't take it personally – you betrayed Voldemort after all, not him. You saved his son, you saved his freedom, and he saved your life. Those are facts. Of course he bears you a grudge, and yes, it's related to your betrayal, but not the way you think! He's angry, because you realized your mistake long before he did, and because he would've gone over to our side but couldn't, because it was too late. Part of that anger is directed at himself, and in some irrational way he can't forgive you that you didn't, well, convince him to change sides when there was still time.'
'I didn't trust him,' Severus said slowly. 'If I'd been, not sure, but if he'd given me reason to believe…'
'How would that have been possible? The way I see it, keeping a balance of distrust and suspicion among his followers was one of Voldemort's strong points. Constant fear, constant suspicion, and he knew all too well about everyone's weak points. Lucius's was his family, or why do you think he established his headquarters at the Manor? He was well aware that Lucius would have defected instantly, if there hadn't been that Lestrange madwoman to keep an eye on him. Anyway, why don't you just accept that the two of you are friends? It's not a crime, for heaven's sake!'
'Nothing Lucius gives away comes without a price, Miss Granger. Certainly not his friendship. You'd do well to keep that in mind.'
'Why on earth do you seem to think that I'm as stupid as a chicken? I went to him because he was the only person I could think of who'd help you. I'm sure that he doesn't intend to harm me, and we've formed this relationship – I have no idea how long it's going to last, or what will come of it. But I think I made my perception of Lucius very clear. I know how and what he is. That doesn't stop me liking him, though.'
'It's just as you said, Miss Granger. You're barely over eighteen, you are an innocent, in spite of everything you've seen and lived through. I, on the other hand, have lost that innocence a long time ago.'
'I think,' Hermione said quietly, 'after what Voldemort and then Dumbledore did to you, you've every right to be cynical. How could you trust anybody? But maybe…' She passed a hand through her short curls. 'Maybe leaving will be good for you. You're going to meet people who've never heard of Voldemort, or Dumbledore, or Severus Snape. You'll be a blank page to them, and maybe that's what you need. Just blank pages, no memories, no hidden meanings. Just empty spaces and new choices. No big ones, either, merely whether to stay or leave, go left or right. I suppose you will have to learn a lot.' She smiled at him. 'Believe it or not, I almost envy you.'
'You're being sentimental again, but I appreciate the way you're trying to understand me.' Severus rose from his chair. 'When you see Lucius, tell him I'll be in touch. The flat is yours starting tomorrow – I'll send a standard contract by owl. When you've signed it, send it back to Gringotts, they'll put it in my vault.'
Her throat suddenly tight and painful, Hermione nodded. 'Will do. Professor… Severus, take care. Promise?'
He smiled down at her. 'I will. So should you… Hermione. And I expressly forbid you to name any of your children after me – that's something Lucius would do, merely to spite me.'
'You're sleeping with an archetypal patriarch, Miss Granger, make no mistake. And now' – he held out his hand – 'good bye. Stay as you are. Although' – he smirked – 'you might want to work on that annoying habit of blushing.'
'Good bye, Professor!' Hermione hugged him fiercely and smiled into his shoulder when his arms tentatively closed around her. 'And thank you!'
The last words echoed through the already empty room. Typical, she thought, first he complained about you being ungrateful, and when he finally stopped being a bastard long enough so you could say thank you, he was gone before you'd finished saying it.
Children… Lucius the patriarch… Severus Malfoy? Good Lord. Well, for now she had a flat, she had money, and she wanted a life. She also wanted a lover, but certainly no husband, not for the time being. There was also the project – maybe they'd be able to go through with it even without Severus's help. Hermione stretched, long and with relish, then sat down at her desk. If Lucius really wanted her, he'd have to work for it. Right now, there was Arithmancy, and then she'd go back to her acronym. There was nothing like a good acronym to start a project…