Summary: Everyone's looking for something: a way home, a way out, and a lost kitten.
A/N: Thanks to Ana, Melenka, and Goalie for alpha-reading, to Shefa for a long-ago conversation that plays out herein, and to Lady Rhian for pinch-hit beta-reading.
33: As There Is
"I don't know."
Try as he might, Severus found himself too insubstantial to travel by Floo. As he initiated the Reflammation Spell to identify the other end of the most recent connection, he petitioned whatever forces looked after lost kittens, hoping that Mimi was not at the Potters', as retrieving her from that household might involve more explaining than he felt up to under current circumstances.
"Reflammation initiated. Working…"
While he waited, he tried to ignore the new memories emerging from the past.
Could Hermione not realize the effect she was having? His past self was, for now, too preoccupied to realize that the scent of her hair invited a dangerous game indeed, but it was only a matter of time. Surely the mature Hermione was logical enough to realize that the poor sod had enough dangerous games to be getting on with, and that she would be kinder to leave him in peace...
Then he snorted. Who are you kidding?
As the Floo worked its maddeningly slow re-connective magic, he gritted his teeth, determined to endure his once and future past with whatever dignity he could muster.
It would be easier if Mimi were here. He might not even mind if she used his leg as a scratching post.
"You don't know?"
"Spare me whatever diatribe you're queuing up; of course I don't. As I can't share what I do know, it stands to reason that I can at least share what I —"
"Why are you wasting my time?"
"Me? I'd say rather that you're wasting mine. It's no lark to go dizzying through time whilst Athena or the coin or whatever is governing this situation waits for you to pull yourself together well enough to risk actually communicating."
"Pull myself together? I have been awaiting this opportunity for weeks."
"History evidently required that I not fall too far behind in my studies; there are things I needed to learn for... for that."
"As if your memorizing textbooks will affect anything."
"It did. I mean, it will. Not as much as your efforts, of course, but it will."
"Why can I hear you?"
"Probably because I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, or at least suspect. Or maybe... fear." She frowned, thinking. "Is fear is a kind of knowledge, I wonder? Perhaps, under certain circumstances... bad ones."
Out of nowhere, she heard herself saying, "I want to go home."
A searching glance. "Is home better than now?"
Hermione sighed inwardly, knowing he was seeking for clues to the big picture rather than expressing anything resembling concern. "Yes." But then she looked at him, daring to register his physical presence. She'd almost forgotten what it was like not to be able to see him. "In some ways."
His eyes went hard, and she studied them for a moment, finally chuckling.
"You find something amusing?"
She leaned against one of the student desks. "I just realized what you're doing when you look that way. You're calculating something, aren't you?"
He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Obviously."
She laughed quietly. "It's not obvious to your students, Professor. They find it rather scary."
He shrugged. "That has its uses."
"So what do your calculations tell you?"
"At the moment, nothing, as you interrupted me."
"Hm. Then calculate aloud? Perhaps between the two of us we can..."
One of the cauldrons on the teacher's bench rattled sharply on its grate, emitting a rolling cascade of orange smoke. Professor Snape muttered something she couldn't quite catch, and the smoke coiled upwards, twisting into a tightly contained whirlwind, which he forced back beneath the potion's surface. The potion emitted a single bubble and turned a sullen shade of blue.
"The results of your supposed project. I've calculated a random series of non-fatal, plausibly intermediate errors to maintain the fiction that it's your work."
He said nothing, adding a soft grey powder to the potion and setting it to simmer. Turning, he crossed his arms and looked at her. "Regarding your earlier suggestion, the answer is no. I work alone."
She walked to the front of the classroom and set her bag down on her usual desk. "Athena's Owl might beg to differ."
"Coins cannot beg."
"Must you be so literal? No; strictly speaking, coins do not beg, but cats..."
"That is the second time you've mentioned cats; what have they to do with anything?"
"I don't know, at least not for certain."
"Is there anything you do know?"
"Anything you can hear, you mean?"
He looked at her steadily.
She shook her hair out of her face and met his eye. "I know that you're given to expecting others to execute arcane, Byzantine schemes without bothering to tell them about it and then scorching them for their failure to complete tasks they didn't realize existed."
He snorted. "Hardly. As I believe I've just mentioned, I work alone."
"Generally," she conceded.
"Spare me generalities; stick to specifics."
"Fine. For a start, I know that you've recently broken your toe. Also, that you've never had a familiar. And why you hate Harry. And, lastly, why it took you as long as it did to admit that we needed to talk." As she spoke, she watched him very carefully, trying to discern from his expression what, if anything, he could hear.
"There is no we. I do not hate Potter. Despise, yes; hate, no. As for my limp — "
"Despise, hate... you're splitting hairs."
"Which is my right."
"And now you're deflecting."
"Also my right. There are matters I do not discuss with anyone, least of all a meddling student — or whatever you may be."
No mention of familiars... She shrugged. "Fair enough, but I don't see what it can cost you in this instance, as I already know."
His eyes narrowed, and she knew she was being measured. "There is more to knowledge than fact — something you have yet to learn." Then his lips settled into a firm line, as though he'd decided something.
"'The more honestly you look, the more you may see.'"
The blue potion emitted another bubble, and he glanced at it. "You, of all people, quoting Sybill Trelawney? Things must be dire, indeed."
"You've ample evidence for that without reminding me of how beastly I used to be to the poor thing — trapped in this castle for something she can't even remember doing." Hermione closed her eyes and swallowed; the parallel was too close. Then she shook her hair out of her eyes. "Regardless, one or both of us, probably you, is supposed to learn, see, or do something, and the sooner we figure out what that something is, the sooner you can be rid of me and I can get home. As much as I hate this, it must be terribly disconcerting from where you stand."
"Which brings me to the point." He came around the desk and stood facing her.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"The point I've wished to confirm with you for some weeks now. Your presence is not unfamiliar. You've been here once before."
She nodded. "Three times, actually, although there's really no way you could have known about the first two."
"I refer to a certain Quidditch match."
"Yes, that was me, in the Forest. I've also been here on the night we were all Sorted, and in our first Potions class."
"Have you been present all this time?"
"No. I was the one who initiated the coin toss then, and when I'd..." Dangerous ground, Hermione... "When the logic of the coin was satisfied, I returned to my own time."
His lip curled. "The Archivist said the coin is a transport to wisdom."
"It can work that way."
When he spoke, his voice was low and quiet. "And tell me, Miss Granger, did you find the wisdom you sought?"
Careful... "I achieved better understanding, yes."
"How satisfying for you."
"Why are you getting angry with me?"
"You are stalking me through time."
"I'm trying to help you."
"I don't need your help."
"Perhaps not now, although my presence calls that into question — I can see that, even if you're determined not to — but in that other time, my time? You have no idea."
"I cannot imagine any circumstances under which your assistance would prove either needed or welcome."
Pressing a phial into Harry's hands to catch his dying memories...
"So you'd rather die?"
He put his hands on the teacher's bench and dropped his gaze. "Go away, Miss Granger, and leave me in peace."
"I did that once. I won't make that mistake again."
He glanced up, his hair falling across his face. "So you admit you need rescuing. Ask Potter. It's supposed to be his specialty."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Must I spell it out for you? You don't know whether I live or die, and you seek me out across time — Why?" Straightening, his face resumed its familiar, imperious mask. "I can only conclude that in your own time, your overconfidence gets you killed."
"You know the outcome of the coming war, and yet you do not know my fate. Your characteristic over-confidence probably takes you out of the safety of the castle, doubtless against express instruction, most likely mine, and into some sort of last-stand crossfire."
Hermione blinked rapidly as she tried to follow his logic. "You... you think I defy you — that I escape your protection?"
"Why else would you emerge here, this year, when..." He glanced almost reflexively at his forearm. "... unless it is to ask me to save you in the future."
Hermione snorted. "You idiot."
"Watch your tone, Granger. You are technically still my student."
"Oh, do go on grasping at that straw, for as long as you can..." Severus muttered, glaring at the hourglass that was spinning end-over-end over the cold grate.
Hermione stiffened. "Wrong on both counts. You refuse to see —"
"Then enlighten me."
"I survive, which I'm sure you can't hear. Thanks in no small part to you, which I'm sure you can't hear either, but also thanks to Harry, and Ron, and countless others, and a great deal of luck, besides." She knew from his expression that her words were empty noise. "Why do I bother?"
"Your little life is not the one that ultimately matters, Miss Granger."
"I know that."
"Then I suggest you accept your unimportance and go haunt your own time."
He could be describing himself. "I am trying to go back. I'm trying right now."
Her eyes narrowed. "What are you hiding from? What possible threat am I to you?"
If he could hear her, it didn't register on his face. "And when you do, see to it that you return the Archivist's coin. I've little patience for your self-aggrandizing conceit as my student; I've even less for you as thieving, time-traveling ghost."
It was all too much. "'Thieving ghost?' Me?"
"Get out," he roared, pointing his wand at her.
Hermione exploded. "Do you think I want to be stuck here, unheard, largely unseen, attempting to work around the edges of history, groping in the dark toward some connection with someone who's clearly determined to sulk in isolation, when every time history lets me pause, I see the faces of so many of my friends, friends whom I know will die?"
His wand-hand remained steady, but his eyes flickered again.
Doubt? She didn't pause. "When I know your guilt, your despair, your self-imposed hair-shirt of heroic self-sacrifice? Fighting through the broken glass of your words, trying to find one elusive moment when you can actually hear me? When your insults and sarcasm make my teeth ache even as my heart breaks for you?"
He crossed his arms. "Your heart is of no concern to me."
"Patently not, but it matters to me! Tell me, do you think you can find a more self-negating role to play in this save-the-world business if you try? Or are you intent on suicide-by-battle-of-good-and-evil? Bit opportunistic of you, but — Well! If that's how you see the world!"
"You have no idea why I —"
"Yes, I do."
"You don't know what I have lost —"
"What I shall have to endure, what I am prepared to endure —"
"More 'eager' than 'prepared,' I dare say."
"— what a bloody Crucio your presence is —"
"No more than yours, believe me."
"— especially now, at a time when —"
"When everything you fear is coming to pass?"
For a fleeting moment, his eyes were haunted, but he shuttered his expression.
She pressed on. "When you look at the faces of those around you and imagine the horrors that await them — knowing better than anyone what Voldemort is capable of? What ends might await them all simply because they were born in the wrong time?"
"When your heart chokes on your own helplessness, on the utter certainty that what's coming — however it ends — will forever destroy everything around you, so really, perhaps it's best not to get too close, to stay detached, not to care too much — or at all, if you can help it?"
"You think I don't care?"
"When you just want to stand and yell at everyone to prepare now, to start running now, to wake the hell up, and to scream with frustration because you know that even if you do, they won't hear you, because they can't? You're telling me I don't know what that feels like? That I don't understand? You think I don't know?"
"Work faster, you infernal, decrepit excuse for..." Suddenly, Severus pushed away from the hearth and pressed his hand to his forehead. "Damn it, girl, are you trying to break the man?"
Professor Snape stared at her as if cursed into immobility.
"I know everything, Snape, everything except why I'm here and whether or not you live."
His voice, when he found it, was dry. "I can't save you, child." In his eyes, a helpless apology.
But in her relief at finally, finally being heard, she missed it. "I'm not a child. And I don't need saving, although I have, many times, and when I did, I accepted it with better grace than you seem capable of showing."
Severus tried in vain to slow his breathing. "Easy, man — she's still a student. Your student." He groaned. I hope he doesn't kill her.
Professor Snape's jaw tightened, but his voice stayed even. "All questions of the future aside, I remind you that your current predicament seems to require my assistance. "
It was Hermione's turn to be caught flat-footed. "Oh, bloody hell; you're right. I'm sorry." Granger, you are an idiot... "And... thank you."
She slumped against the desk. "You could have thrown my words back in my teeth just then; Merlin knows I absolutely deserve it. But you didn't." She exhaled. "Thank you."
She glanced up at him; he was staring at her as though she were some astonishing new species of creature and he couldn't decide whether to squash it or flee.
Flee. Definitely flee. Severus smacked his palm flat on the mantel. "Find my familiar, you misbegotten, malfunctioning, Longbottom-level —"
The Floospell replied with a bland "Working..."
Hermione's lips twitched wryly. "I'd make an absolutely horrible teacher. And I never really appreciated what a very, very good one you were. Are. Have been." She gestured apologetically; she'd never get the tenses properly sorted. "We didn't deserve you."
He said nothing, still staring.
"I honestly don't mean to make light of what you're enduring — what you may yet have to endure. I know how it ends, so I forget that to you it's all still an amorphous and terrifying future." She sighed. "Bugger me; I really don't know how to do this." Pushing away from the desk, she stood before him, hands open. "Forgive me, if you can — I hope you will, anyway."
Severus stifled a groan. Poor bastard doesn't even see it coming. He'll be smitten in three...
His wariness changed to confusion. "You're asking for my forgiveness?"
"Mine," he repeated.
"I am, yes, although I don't expect it."
He seemed to turn that idea around in his mind, staring at his hands as if he'd never seen them before.
He didn't look up. "I'm not certain how one goes about forgiveness, exactly."
She waited, but he didn't speak further. Well. Can't have that. "May I offer a possible approach? It's likely to be extremely awkward, but it might work."
He opened his hands slightly.
She went to him and offered her hand. "Can we start over? My name is Hermione Granger, sir, and although I was your student for years, I don't think we've ever actually met."
In London, Severus braced his hands on the mantel, holding himself very still.
After a long hesitation during which his eyes went hard again, perhaps seeking another way out, Professor Snape switched his wand to his left hand and extended his right toward Hermione's. She had to close the distance to clasp it — Of course; poor man — but finally, their hands met.
She closed her fingers gently around his. "I wish I could tell you it will be okay, but I can't — because I don't know." She saw that he was listening, that he heard her. "I will do what I can." She pressed her other hand over his. "I promise."
Severus closed his eyes, exhaling softly. Oh, Hermione...
After a pause, he nodded.
"You could hear me?"
A wild inspiration struck her. "Mimi misses you."
"Who is Mimi?" He tried to pull his hand away, but she resisted, pressing more firmly.
"She's your familiar."
"I've never had a —"
His gaze dropped to their connected hands, then his eyes sought hers.
They stared at each other, their eyes widening.
In the next moment, Hermione was hurtling through time.
"Working..." the Floospell repeated.
"Work faster," he growled.
"Connection retrieved. You are now connected to the office of Demetrios of Alexandria, Bay Laurel of Athena (Second Class), Head Archivist at the British Library (Wizarding Branch)."
"Finally." Leaning toward the flames, Severus called, "Librarian?"
Demetrios didn't reply.
Severus strained to hear anything through the connection. Very distantly, he heard a regular, insistent thumping and a wildly off-key yowling that took a moment to register as singing.
"Librarian!" he called more loudly.
From much closer, he heard a soft, padding skittering, a mad cascading crackle, and finally several soft swishing noises — exactly as if a stack of papers had been dislodged and fallen from a great height to settle individually on the floor.
The twitch of his lips was answered by an utterly delighted "Meee!"