"Miss Granger? You awake? Its five minutes 'till Hogsmeade."
Hermione cracked open an eye to see the bored face of Stan Shunpike hovering over her. "Thank you," she mumbled sleepily. "I'll be down in just a moment."
Satisfied that she was awake enough, Stan nodded and walked back down the stairs to the first level of the Knight Bus. Hermione waited until his head had completely disappeared from view before rising from the bed. In her two days aboard the wretched vehicle, she had learned that privacy was not something that the conductor was familiar with, and she was extra careful to keep his prying eyes far from her. As she stood to dress and collect her things, the bus gave a great lurch that sent her hurtling towards the floor. Wincing as she hit the hard ground, Hermione vowed never to step foot upon the purple monstrosity again.
It took only a moment for her to gather her trunks and shrink them to fit in her pocket, and another moment more to cast freshening and cosmetic charms over herself to banish the grubby look of a traveler. Casting a last disparaging look at the bed, she made her way, slowly, down the spiral staircase to the ground floor of the bus. There were several other wizards and witches heading down as well, and she was inwardly pleased to notice that she wasn't the only one who seemed more than happy to be departing.
A crack and a bang later and the bus finally came to a stop in familiar surroundings. There was a bit of a rush as the passengers pushed to climb down and onto the street, but Hermione was able to slip through quickly, and soon, she was standing in the midst of the bustle of Hogsmeade. Though the streets were covered in white and the sky was rapidly darkening, there seemed to be no end to the steady stream of shoppers that raced along the sidewalks and into the stores in a last minute frenzy to buy presents before the shops closed for Christmas Eve. Hermione was very relieved that she had nothing left to buy and was able to cut through the crowds to the road up to Hogwarts.
As she passed by Honeydukes, she allowed herself to feel a pang of nostalgia. Watching the faces of the young customers reminded her of her time as a student, but also reminded her how unlike a student she had become. It was strange to be looking at the town as an adult, especially since it was the first time she'd seen it in nearly five years. Five years, she thought wistfully, dodging slightly out of the way of a group of boys engaged in a snow battle, Five years is a lifetime.
She sighed and quickened her pace up towards the school. Even though it had been her idea to leave Hogwarts in the first place, and she knew the decision had been the best one to make, she still felt the twinges of regret when she thought of it. There was no other choice, she thought, biting her lip. Truly, there hadn't been. By the end of her first year of apprenticeship it was clear to everyone on the staff that Hogwarts was not the place for Hermione. First there were the students, who had known her as a peer and refused to let go of that notion and rejected her authority. Next there was Filius who, while a Master at Charms and a highly intelligent man, hadn't taken an apprentice in years and faced with one as precocious as Hermione was at a loss for how to properly instruct her. Then there was the problem of trying to grow up in her childhood home.
Growing up; that was the reason she always gave when someone asked her why she decided to leave the school. "Hogwarts is like a second home," was the much rehearsed line she would give, "and it's impossible to learn to fly when you stay at home in the nest." She shook her head, it made sense in a rational way, and the move away had helped her to grow up, but now, as she was returning, she felt that she should admit to herself the truth; she had left because of Severus.
The last time she'd talked to him, really talked to him, was in his office six and a half years ago after the infamous Veritaserum incident. He'd told her to grow up, and not to return until she did, and she'd taken him seriously. After the encounter she'd cried for days, and very nearly fell into a depression, but she hadn't turned back. She'd loved him too much to risk losing him completely, and while it was the most painful thing in the world, she knew that if she tried again too quickly she would.
It had been hard in the year she had stayed on at Hogwarts, working under Filius. Given that she was no longer a student, she had been expected to act as one of the staff, sitting at the high table, attending meetings, and acting basically as a teacher, sans actually teaching a class. The new life and responsibility had been hard enough without the added weight of seeing him everywhere, and not even being allowed to look too long. A few times she'd had strained polite conversation with him while waiting for a meal or meeting to begin, but other than those rare occasions she avoided him altogether, the pain of feeling so separate was too much for her to bear.
It was near May when she realized that the pain wasn't going away, and as long as she stayed near him, it never would. It was as if no time had passed at all, she still scurried away every time she saw him, still felt her heart leap to her throat when he spoke, and still cried at nights longing for him. It was like being in perpetual mourning, and with the other strains the year had brought she knew that she wouldn't be able to bear it much longer. He'd told her to grow up, after all, and all she had done was dig herself into a sad little hole. Finally, it got to be too much and she'd gone to Filius practically begging for a way out. Luckily the man had grown quite a soft spot for her and was not offended in the slightest. Quietly aware of her distress he had already spoken to a friend of his, Aurelia, who taught at the most prestigious magical academy in Europe, the Universidad de Magia in Barcelona, and gotten Hermione accepted for the summer term. She had consented gratefully, and at the end of the school year she packed up all of her belongings and left, promising herself not to return until she was ready. Ready wasn't something she had defined, she figured that she would know when it happened.
Leaving Hogwarts had been at the same time one of the hardest and one of the easiest things she'd ever done. One the one hand, it had been her home for many years, and held most of the outstanding memories of her life, good and bad. She, Harry, and Ron had learned its halls and corridors better than nearly anyone, save Dumbledore, and all of the wonderful people, ghosts, and various other creatures and animate objects had begun to feel like the magical family she'd always wanted. Leaving the school had been a little bit like leaving a large part of herself, and it certainly wasn't made any easier by the fact that she left on poor terms.
On the other hand, the idea of studying in Barcelona was beyond a dream come true. The school was very elite, and rarely took students as young and inexperienced as she. Filius had argued on her behalf, however, and the headmistress had finally relented and agreed to make an exception in Hermione's case, allowing her to begin her studies early. Walking into the school on the first day had been like her vision of heaven; the library put Hogwarts' to shame, the teachers were all Masters and beyond, and every single student there was as devoted to learning as she was. Even the change of city was exciting for Hermione, who'd never thought she'd fit in any place other than England. It had been somewhat hard at first, but translation charms were some of the first covered and soon Hermione found herself filling the role of academy student and young adult expertly, and was able to rid herself of the remaining angst at leaving Hogwarts behind.
Once she'd settled in, Hermione had thrown herself completely into life in Barcelona, spending the next four and a half years deeply immersed in her studies, not even pausing to return to England for holidays or vacations. While Remus came to visit relatively often, as did Harry and Ron when they had the chance, and she exchanged letters with friends and faculty on a regular basis, she considered her time in Spain to be almost completely separate from her life back home. The study of Charms was beyond fascinating to her, and she found herself soaking up information at a rate unheard of even for herself. The people she met there were incredibly interesting as well, and it was easy for her to get lost in the world of the student, and as time went on, the world of the Master. She'd earned her title of Junior Master just the past September, and had immediately dived headlong into research and practical applications, almost forgetting that the rest of the world existed.
So it had come as something of a shock when Filius wrote to her in October announcing his decision to retire, and his hope that she would return to Hogwarts to serve as his successor. It was a shock, to be certain, but surprisingly, not an unwelcome one. After much long and careful thought, she'd decided that his decision was the sign she'd been waiting for, and she was indeed ready to return to Hogwarts so confidently she'd sent back an owl declaring her acceptance.
Hermione sighed, shaking her head at her reverie into the past. Which brings me back to the present, she thought, as she made her way onto the school grounds, only minutes from the castle. She wasn't slated to return until the end of winter holidays, but she'd been too excited, and had worked it out privately with Dumbledore to come back a few weeks early for Christmas. The holiday had always been her favorite back as a student, and the thought of missing it so closely was too unpleasant. Now, however, as she neared the large wooden doors she felt a stab of nervousness in her chest. In the excitement of moving back and becoming a teacher, she'd forgotten about all her anxieties, and now they were back in full force.
Although some of her stress was reserved for the more mundane fears of returning and teaching, most of her apprehension was focused on seeing Severus again. While Barcelona had done wonders to mend her broken heart, nothing could ever heal it completely, and she wasn't entirely sure it could stand living with him once again. Time and again she'd promised herself not to let her feelings for him get in the way of living her life, which was another reason she had accepted the Hogwarts position, but she was beginning to regret that pledge. Whether she cared to admit it or not, she was still deeply in love with the man, and the idea of seeing him again brought an overwhelming mix of elation and dread that she didn't know if she could handle.
"Oh well, too late for regrets," she said under her breath, as she passed into the warmth of the castle, smiling despite the butterflies fluttering around her stomach.
Hogwarts was just as she remembered it, and the stab resigned itself to stay simply a small ache as she made her way stealthily up the staircases. While she had worked out her early arrival with Dumbledore, she'd requested that he not enlighten the rest of the staff. At the time it had seemed like a great surprise to show up early, but now she wasn't so sure she could wait until dinner to see all of the faces she'd missed so much. She decided that she had to talk to someone first, and since Filius' office was the closest to what would be her quarters she decided to stop by and see the little old man first. Jumping from one staircase onto another moving one she made her way towards the Ravenclaw section of the castle.
Only a few minutes later, she was taking a deep breath as she raised a hand to knock twice on Filius' door, in the hope that her tiny professor would still be working. In the year she had spent in the castle with him, she had never known Filius to leave before dinner, and she couldn't imagine that his routine had changed. True to form, she heard him walking towards the door calling out, "Just a moment," in his squeaky voice. She straightened out her robes as he opened the door, and flashed him her biggest smile as he stumbled backwards in surprise at seeing her.
"Hermione!" he cried, as soon as he picked himself off of the floor. "My word, you nearly stopped my heart. I thought you weren't coming back until January."
"I couldn't bear the thought of spending another Christmas away," she said, bending down to embrace him. "So I arranged to leave a week in advance. I hoped that no one would mind."
"Mind? Are you mad, child? We've all been wondering if you'd ever want to return! Especially after all the wonderful things you wrote about Barcelona."
Hermione blushed, remembering the gushing letters she had sent in her first few months away. "I did love living in Spain," she said, following Filius inside and sitting in her usual seat across from him, "but Hogwarts is my home, and I was really ready to come back."
"Well, I for one am certainly glad to have you," he dabbed his eyes a little with his handkerchief, smiling at her happily, "and not only because you are here to help me."
"I know, and thank you so much," she said earnestly, grasping his hand. "You've done so much for me, Filius, first getting me into Universidad de Magia then giving me your job here. I really don't know how to thank you enough."
"Nonsense," he said, brushing away her thanks. "You deserved your place in Barcelona, just as you deserve to be a teacher here. You are quite remarkable, Hermione, and it has been my pleasure to help you along."
Watery eyed, she pulled him into an embrace. "Well, thank you still," she said, smiling and drawing back. "I do appreciate all you've done, whether I 'deserved' it or not."
"Well," he said, bustling away to straighten some papers on his desk, and sniffing a little bit. "Enough of all of this. I'm sure there will be time enough tonight for tearful reunions."
"No doubt," Hermione grinned, "and I'm sure…"
She was cut off by Filius' hourglass turning a bright shade of red and whistling softly in the corner. The tiny man gave a little jump and flicked his wand at it, before turning to her apologetically. "I hate to rush you out like this, but I promised Albus that I'd see to the entertainment tonight, and I've not even started yet." He grinned at the disheveled appearance she'd managed to get on her long walk up to the castle, "It might be for the best, though. I'm sure you'll want to clean up before the Christmas feast. This is the first time you've seen most of us in years, you know, and now you're a Junior Master. You'll want to make a good impression." He winked at her and walked over to the door, holding it open for her.
"Wait," she said quickly, pulling out a small package from her robes. "If you're to be in charge of the entertainment, then maybe you'll want your present now." Filius looked curiously at her and shut the door again as she handed over a small box, which was wrapped in Gryffindor red and gold. "Be careful when you open it."
He raised his fuzzy white eyebrows and held the package away from his body as he ripped though the brightly coloured wrap. No sooner had the ribbon hit the floor than the package started to shake and shift, enlarging quickly before their eyes. "Oh my!" he exclaimed happily as the box became to big for his hand and hovered safely to the ground where it continued to grow until it was a whole head above the little man. "What on earth is this?" he asked, looking between the box and Hermione with big eyes.
"Open it," she prompted, grinning madly. It had taken her a long time to Charm the package and the gift inside, but for this look on Filius' face it was worth it. With a flick of his wand the box fell away and with a gasp Filius ran forward to the gleaming piano that stood before him. "It's charmed to play Christmas carols," she told him. "There are thirty in all."
"Amazing," he said, prodding it with his wand. "You did this all by yourself?"
"Completely," she said. "Here, listen to it." She made a complicated swishing motion with her wand and the piano began to launch into short snippets of the carols.
"Excellent, excellent," Filius said, looking over the piano happily and humming along to the songs. For a good five minutes he listened to the music, interjecting praise in between carols, and finding only one small problem. "The last song was a little flat, but that's easily fixed." He gave her a beaming smile and demonstrated a waving pattern with his wand. "Just do that and say 'Strigo Abludere,' and it will correct the problem."
She practiced the movement once before turning her wand on the piano, which was in the middle of a rousing rendition of Jingle Bells, and said, "Strigo Abludere!" The song faltered for a moment before going on with the correct tone quality. Filius gave an excited squeak and patted her on the back saying, "Perfect, Hermione, just perfect." He levitated the instrument easily and shrunk it to fit through the doorway. "I can see why you are already a Junior! This is a wonderful Christmas present; I can't wait to show the rest of the staff how far you've come. I'll take this up to the Great Hall for the feast; why don't you go get yourself dressed up?"
"Thank you, Filius," she said, grinning as he left the room singing along with the charmed piano.
Feeling light with pride over her piano, she strolled slowly out of the classroom, a huge grin plastered on her face. She'd had the idea for the gift years ago at the start of her apprenticeship. Filius only listened to music that had been charmed in one way or another, and since charmed music was hard and expensive to come by he often took on the task of creating the music on his own. Unfortunately, much to the chagrin of all in the staff (excluding perhaps Dumbledore), his creations were limited mostly to charming pixies and other small animals into singing long and boring operettas. After a few months of it, Hermione had been ready to strangle the pixies, and dreamed of a way to get some proper music into his rotation. She'd been overjoyed to find that there was a whole course at Universidad de Magia dedicated to charming instruments, and she enrolled in it straight away, hoping her dream of making it through a session without the use of earplugs would become closer to a reality. It had taken several long and hard months to charm each note of the songs into the piano, but she now felt every minute had been worth it. Given the way Filius had reacted, she guessed that the pixies would be banished, at least for a while, and for that a bit of work seemed minor in comparison. Giggling a bit, she decided that the rest of the staff would probably be thankful for it as well, especially since now that she knew how to Charm the piano she could make it play just about any piece of music so that not only would Christmas be safe but they could look forward to real music for the rest of the year as well.
Soon she was at her chambers, and nodding at a group of passing third years, she let herself into her rooms and looked around happily. It was a smaller space then Filius and the other heads of house had, but the size of a small flat it was more than enough to suit her needs, and now after living in a tiny dorm room for four and a half years it seemed positively luxurious. There was a living room with a couch and a few comfortable chairs situated around an eternally burning fireplace, a spacious bathroom with a swimming pool-like tub, a study that would house her desk and personal library, and a bedroom with a large four poster bed and a huge window facing the grounds. It was decorated in scarlet and subdued gold, simple, but homey.
Conscious of the dwindling time left before the feast, she decided to leave her unpacking for later, and she shed her clothing unceremoniously before plunging into a hot and sweet smelling bath. Instantly relaxed, she allowed herself a few laps before cleansing her hair and stepping out for a quick, magical dry. Her makeup came next, and she sat still in front of her mirror as the charmed cosmetics painted themselves expertly over her face. Normally she wore only minimal makeup, if any, but Filius was right; she did want to make a good impression, and looking like a barefaced schoolgirl wouldn't he helpful. She eyed the results thoughtfully when the final mist of perfume was applied, wiped off just a touch of the eyeliner, and left the bathroom to dress when she heard a loud rap on her door.
"Come in," she called, adding the password under her breath.
"I heard you were back and couldn't stay away," said a cheery looking Remus Lupin, bounding through the flat and into her bedroom.
Hermione gave a tiny shriek of happiness and rushed over to engulf him in a giant bear hug. "It's so good to see you," she said as she drew away. While Remus was one of the few people who'd managed to come to Barcelona, his visits had to be few and far between, and she hadn't seen him since the start of term. "Though you have ruined my surprise; I was planning on making a grand entrance this evening, but I see that won't be happening if everyone already knows I'm here."
"If you wanted to be secretive than you shouldn't have told Filius," he said pointedly. "He's practically running though the halls clanging a bell to announce your arrival. He's been so anxious to get back to work with you."
"He's anxious?" she asked, raising her eyebrows. "I'm the one with the anxiety. I'm beginning to think that this surprise return wasn't such a good idea after all. Just appearing after not seeing anyone for years; I need to make a good impression, especially since I'll be returning as…" she paused, while the rest of the staff knew of her return to Hogwarts, Filius had decided to keep the entire nature of it secret as well. Fishing around for something to say she finished lamely, "… a colleague."
Remus waved his hand dismissively. "Don't be silly; we'd all rather have you back sooner than later." He stepped back from her and sat down on the bed.
"I suppose I am glad that you found out," she said, giving him a cheeky grin. "Now you can help me decide what to wear."
"It all looks the same to me," he replied, though he sat up a bit straighter and turned his full attention to the wardrobe.
"Right, well, earn your stay and help me pick," she called from inside the closet as she un-shrunk her trunks and brought out an assortment of dress robes.
"Whatever you say, Professor," Remus said, smiling as her head popped out in surprise.
"How did you know about that?" Hermione asked, her eyes widening and mentally berating herself for the near slip that must have given her away. "I didn't think Filius was going to tell anyone at all… saving it as a start of term surprise or whatnot."
Remus shrugged, "Sirius told me, which either means everyone knows or he's been cozying up to the portrait in Filius' office again." He frowned a bit at her, "Don't wear the gray."
"What's wrong with the gray?" she asked, looking down at the robes she had just put on.
He rolled his eyes, "Its Christmas Hermione. Anyway, I wouldn't worry if I were you, we've known for ages that you'd be a brilliant teacher, and now you'll have your chance to prove us right."
"I don't know, Remus," she said, stepping back into the closet and stripping off the dress. "Do you really think I'm ready for such a responsibility? I am only twenty five, after all, and I'm not even a full master yet, not to mention that I haven't any teaching experience."
"A very mature twenty-five, if I may say so; sometimes I think you're more adult than I am. As for your training, most schools would be thrilled to take on someone who went to Universidad de Magia. Not all professors are even Junior Masters, you know. Besides, you have experience teaching, to a degree. Without your tutoring, I doubt that half of the Gryffindor boys in your year would have made it through Hogwarts, and probably a few of the Hufflepuffs as well."
She had to laugh at that. "Good point, Remus. Speaking of boys who ought not to have graduated, have you heard the latest from Harry and Ron?"
"Ah yes, got an owl from them this morning. Sirius is going to the Burrow for the holiday to congratulate them both. It's a shame we can't be there, I'm sure Molly will be at her finest now that she has a fully qualified Auror in the family."
"Yes, she's very proud of Ron, Harry too," Hermione said, sifting through a few remaining dress robes that she liked. "As we all are. I do wish we could be together for Christmas though. It is my first back, after all, and other than being in Spain I've not missed a holiday with them since second year! Well except for…" she trailed off, not wanting to follow on her train of thought. Long ago she had schooled herself not to think of her time-traveling experience, because that thought would always lead her back to Severus, and while the pain had subsided to a significant degree she didn't want to think on it more than she had to. Unconsciously, her hand fluttered to the ruby that still lay on her neck. "Blue or gold?" she called out, dropping her hand quickly.
"Gold, I think," Remus replied, though from his tone she could tell her change of subject hadn't gone unnoticed.
"How do I look?" she asked after a moment, walking out of the closet wearing the delicate golden robes and trying to look thoroughly merry.
"Beautiful," he answered, rising off the bed to give her a hug. "Though I think you might be even lovelier if you wear that necklace on the outside."
She gave a start in his arms, and drew away. "I couldn't…" she mumbled, looking down away from him. "It just wouldn't be right." He raised an eyebrow at her and she sighed, "It's been only five years, Remus. It's still too soon for wearing that necklace to mean anything but what it does; that I still love him. I've no right to just flaunt that, especially since it isn't a secret who gave me the ruby and why. I have grown up, and I'm not about to start playing mind games again, and wearing it out would be just that."
He didn't respond but fixed her with a long and meaningful stare. Then without another word on the subject, he reached beneath her neckline and pulled out the necklace, which sparkled brilliantly in the candlelight. "Shall we head down to the Great Hall? I believe we are nearly running late."
Hermione looked at Remus for a long minute with sad eyes before slipping the ruby back beneath her robes. "Alright," she said finally, shaking her head to clear her thoughts and putting a smile back on her face. "Let's go."
"Right then," Remus said, settling back into a jolly tone, though he couldn't quite hide his disappointment. "We'd better hurry, if we want to be on time."
"Fancy using the secret passage down the hall to get there? It will be faster and loads more fun," she said, linking her arm into his and grinning despite the heavy doubt that was beginning to settle over her.
"I've got a better way," he said, grinning when he saw her confusion. "I've been doing research of my own while you've been away. Remember the one eyed witch? Turns out she has more than one secret in that hump of hers…"
Severus stood in front of the mirror with a deep scowl on his face. Although he was sure that the black dress robes that he wore were draped correctly and were appropriate for the situation he still felt as though there were something missing, and he was thoroughly displeased with himself for thinking so. He never bothered himself with his appearance for anything, let alone something as ridiculous as Christmas dinner, yet here he had been for the last twenty minutes, musing over his attire and what could possibly be wrong with it. Finally he decided to let it rest and with a derisive snort aimed at himself he retired to his sitting room, conjuring up a tea service for one along with a batch of charmed gingerbread cookies, to pass the time until he had to make his dreaded appearance.
For a while he tried to read, but soon he grew restless and threw the book down in disgust. For some reason his mind had been preoccupied for the past weeks, and he'd been able to do precious little except sit in his chair and fume at whatever nameless stress was occupying his subconscious. Nameless, a drawling voice in the back of his head accused, you know very well what's bothering you, and she certainly has a name.
Severus waved the thought away, as he had a million times, but tonight it rang more than true and he couldn't escape it. Though he had been trying to avoid the obvious, perhaps it was time to admit that the return of Hermione Granger was having more than a little effect on his life. He'd taken the news well at first, with little more than a second of apprehension. In the years she'd been away, he'd managed to convince himself thoroughly that she no longer mattered to him, and for a while he managed to act it. After a few days, however, the reality had begun to sink in, and Severus began a bitter war with his unconscious trying to rid her from his thoughts. Now, on Christmas of all nights, he was nearly forced to admit that she was the stress that was so interfering with his life.
"There is nothing to be thought about it," he told himself resolutely, although his hand turned traitor and searched for the small silver disk that she had enchanted for him so long ago. As he reached for it he realized two things, first, that it was not in its usual place in his pocket, and second, that this was the reason that his outfit had seemed incomplete. Cursing himself under his breath both for his forgetfulness and for his weakness, he stalked into the other room to retrieve the charm from his other robes.
Finally he dug it out, and without looking he attempted to shove it into his pocket. However, he couldn't seem to make his hands work correctly and instead he held it up to the light, staring at the gleaming piece of silver silently in a way he hadn't done in a very long time.
It was ridiculous, he thought savagely, to place so much importance on something so small. Especially when he'd convinced himself that it had never really meant anything anyway. Just a token from his schooldays, something even the most sentimental of wizards would have boxed up and forgotten long ago.
Still, despite everything he told himself, he couldn't bring himself to shut the charm away.
"Musing, Severus?" The soft voice of Albus Dumbledore cut through the silence of the dungeons, startling Severus out of his staring contest with the silver. "Nothing too serious I hope; it is Christmas after all."
"Albus," he acknowledged, hastily shoving the disk back into his pocket. "What brings you down here, shouldn't you be up decking the halls with boughs of holly, or some such nonsense?"
"All taken care of," the older wizard said, walking over to the empty chair opposite Severus. "Actually, Filius is in a most festive mood this evening, and insisted on completing the decorations by himself."
Severus made a sour face, "Wonderful, Albus. I'm so glad that you've now seen fit to destroy Christmas on two levels. What will he do? Swirling clouds of glitter to surround his abominable pixies? You remember what happened last year when he had reign over the trees; the house-elves were cleaning the tinsel for a week."
Dumbledore chuckled, happily conjuring up a large tray of steaming hot gingerbread men and offering them to Severus who shook his head in disgust. "And they had a fabulous time doing it, as I recall. Fear not, Severus. I have the feeling that tonight will be just lovely."
"Humph," he grumbled. The smile on Dumbledore's face was jolly and full of Christmas spirit, enough to send Severus into an even fouler mood. Feeling vindictive he sent an inconspicuous charm at the older man's tray, charming the cookies into life.
"Oh, come now," Albus clucked, conjuring a cup of cocoa to go along with the gingerbread and sipping it innocently. "Your mood has been decidedly un-cheerful these past weeks. I should think that Christmas would appeal to you; give you a chance to relax and enjoy the holidays." He wagged his eyebrows, "Just think lad, a delicious meal, liberal amounts of wine, carols and crackers, enchanted mistletoe…"
"That's enough Albus," Severus growled, turning up his nose in distaste. He eyed the older wizard sharply. "I'm always "un-cheerful," as you put it, around the holidays, and you should know as well as anyone that I detest the traditional Christmas celebrations, and as for mistletoe…." Suddenly he narrowed his eyes and tilted his head angrily. "What is this about, Albus?"
"Nothing at all, my boy," Albus said, as he struggled to force a screaming gingerbread man into his mug. "Just trying to get you into the spirit, which I can see you need… it's brutal to charm the cookies like this, Severus, not to mention it makes them hard to eat."
"You're a terrible liar," he responded, rolling his eyes as he reached over to snap the troublesome cookie in half, only to elicit a higher pitched cry from the now drowning confection. He sighed, rubbing his eyes lightly with his hand. "I appreciate your concern, Albus, but it is unfounded. I'm tired, nothing more than that. It's been a trying term, and it's bound only to get more so in the next one. I'm simply attempting to conserve what little energy I have."
"Is that all?" Albus asked, crunching thoughtfully on a leg. "Because I rather thought it something to do with Miss Granger."
Severus paled visibly but tried to act unaffected, taking on a polite but uninterested tone. "Granger? You're losing your touch old man, I've not thought about the girl in ages."
Dumbledore raised a bushy white eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"Certainly," he replied, straightening in his chair. "I'll admit that a few years ago I was rather… preoccupied by her presence, but she and I have both come to terms with the situation, and moved on."
"Aha," the Headmaster said, nodding his head, "I see. So this mood of yours has nothing to do with her approaching return to Hogwarts."
"Absolutely not," Severus said firmly. "As I told you, I don't think of her."
"Well then," Albus said, "permit an old man some confusion, and explain to me why, if you don't think of her, you carry around that charm in your pocket."
If it was possible, Severus went another shade paler. "How on earth…" he murmured, sending an angry glare at his companion. "I don't appreciate spying, Albus."
Albus sighed. "I've not been spying, merely observant."
Severus slumped down moodily in his chair, and looked away. "I don't wish to speak about it."
"I'm afraid I must insist," Albus said gently. "Hermione will be back sooner than you think, and I don't want a repeat of her time here before. I don't presume to ask that you confide your emotions in me, but if the two of you are going to be colleagues, then we must at least speak about how you will co-exist with her professionally. I can't have two of my staff members avoiding each other like children; it isn't conducive to a good working environment for any of the faculty. I'm afraid that we will have to talk about this."
"Fine," he relented, "but may I request that we leave it until after Christmas? I'd rather not make this holiday any worse than it already is, and it won't be an issue for several weeks yet."
"Hmmm," Albus considered. "Yes, I suppose that is a good idea, Severus. It is nearly time for dinner anyway." He quickly drank the last of his cocoa and picked up the forgotten remains of his gingerbread man, who was now moaning faintly and trying to wriggle off the plate with his remaining limbs. He shook his head, a grin reappearing on his face. "Really, Severus, why would you go and charm them like this? It's terribly sadistic."
"Not sadistic," Severus replied, forced to grin himself, "therapeutic. Or haven't you noticed that each man has a little red and gold tie…"
Stalking through the halls behind Dumbledore, Severus felt as if there were no possible way that his mood could get any fouler. The Headmaster had been right yet again, and now he was cursing himself for not working out the Hermione issue when he'd had the chance. If she was on his mind before, now she consumed it, and there was nothing he wished for more than a strong drink, a warm fire, and any book he could escape into to clear his mind. There seemed to be little chance for any of that, at least for a while, because Dumbledore would never allow him to skip the holiday meal. His scowl deepened as he realized that meals meant gossip, and the return of one of Hogwarts' finest certainly counted such.
"Splendid," he heard Dumbledore say from in front of him. "The Hall is truly lovely this year, don't you agree, Severus?"
"No," he replied shortly, despite the fact that he inwardly agreed. There was no sign of the usual frivolity this year, instead the hall gleamed with silvers, gold, and whites, all wrapped around evergreen trees and boughs in a surprisingly tasteful display. Still Severus was not in an appropriate mood to appreciate it and so he turned up his nose as he took a seat next to the headmaster. "It's hideous, as usual."
"Hmm," Dumbledore responded dreamily, he obviously hadn't been paying attention. "And what do you think, Miss Alcot? Miss Florin?" he asked two sixth year Hufflepuffs who had shown up early. Severus silently thanked the old man and tuned out pleasantly as the children droned on about the decorations and the holiday.
Just as Severus was beginning to settle comfortably into a reverie far from the inane chatter of the table he heard Minerva gasp slightly to his right, and several other loud murmurs around the table. Raising his eyes to see what the clamor was about he let out a small gasp himself to see Hermione Granger standing in the entrance, two weeks early and looking like some sort of Christmas angel. As he watched her walk into the room with Lupin he felt his throat constrict and a thin sheen of sweat break out on his forehead. So this is why Albus wanted to speak with me tonight, he thought trying to control his anger at the meddling headmaster. A quick glance next to him proved that Albus was indeed not surprised to see the girl, and in fact looked rather pleased with the happy astonishment of the rest of the staff. It took Severus several moments to stop scowling angrily at the man and turn his gaze back to Hermione.
"Happy Christmas!" she exclaimed, looking rather nervous as she approached the table.
"Happy Christmas indeed," Minerva responded, rising from the table to greet her young friend. "We weren't expecting to see you until January. This is quite a lovely surprise."
There was a loud murmur of assent from the rest of the staff, and several curious whispers from the assembled students. For his part Severus was still in too much of a state of shock to say anything, which was probably for the best at this moment. He sat stunned as Hermione made her way around the table giving hugs, handshakes, and the occasional kiss to the staff. Finally she made her way over to his chair, but to his relief did not offer anything but a quiet, "Happy Christmas, Severus," before moving on to the next person.
Severus had prepared himself many times for the instant he would see her again, but this scenario had never occurred to him, and therefore he was unprepared to school his thoughts away from her. Although the rehearsed lines he had practiced about her being simply a colleague or that he no longer had feelings for her floated through his head like he had practiced, they were easily overrun by the unbidden realization that not only was she more than just a colleague but his feelings had managed to grow despite their physical and emotional distance. He found himself staring at her with all the force of his pent up longing being freed, wishing for her in ways he hadn't allowed himself to for many years.
Stop this, he told himself wildly, forcing his gaze away from her face and into the swirling red of his wine. It was over a long time ago, and all I am feeling is holiday induced nostalgia. He didn't quite believe himself, but it was enough for him to take a deep breath and look back over to where she had taken a seat, almost directly across from him next to fifth year Ravenclaw Vanessa Shaw and Lupin. Besides, he continued savagely, she has been in Spain for five years. Surely being a student in such a country would be enough to rid her of any lingering emotions for a lost lover at home. I doubt she even thinks of me at all.
As he mused over her possible feelings and tried to control his own Hermione occupied the conversation at the table, talking enthusiastically to the assembly about her time at Universidad de Magia. He disregarded her detailed descriptions of classes and the Spanish countryside, and allowed himself a quick flash of triumph when she admitted to dating a few classmates but quickly losing interest in all of them.
Soon the questions began to trickle off, and he allowed himself to drift back into the conversation. While he was still all too aware of Hermione's presence, he could push it to the side of his consciousness and leave it be until he could examine it more fully when he was alone. For now all he wanted to do was to get through the dinner as soon as possible, then escape back to the sanity of his rooms and away from Hermione and all the unwanted thoughts she inspired.
When dinner finally arrived, it appeared that he was almost going to get off easy. Hermione had resigned herself to talking quietly with Lupin and Minerva, the students were happily chatting amongst themselves and the rest of the staff was caught up in a lively debate completely unrelated to him. He had just allowed himself to relax and enjoy his meal when the unthinkable happened. Shaw, who had been listening closely to Hermione's conversation, had apparently recognized why the name and face seemed too familiar to her, and was now gazing at the older girl with a mixture of awe and excitement on her face. Severus felt himself pale as she tugged on Hermione's sleeve to get her attention.
"You were the one who went back in time," Shaw exclaimed with a squeak, nudging the boy next to her excitedly. "I've heard all sorts of rumors about it! Would you tell us the story, please?"
Hermione's extreme case of time-travel was one of the very few ever documented, and the subject of Hogwarts gossip for the past several years. Severus supposed that it was bound to come up at one point or another, but he cursed which ever gods existed that the little brat had chosen tonight of all nights to remember the story. He turned to Hermione with a carefully disinterested stare, hoping that she would feel as uncomfortable as he with the line of questioning and deflect the youngsters' inquiries.
"Yes, I'm the one," Hermione agreed with a kind smile, although her face had gone several shades whiter as well. "Although I don't think it's really appropriate dinner conversation. Perhaps I'll drop by later and…"
"Nonsense," Albus interrupted, squashing the relieved feeling that was beginning to wash over Severus. "It seems as if all of our students are interested in the tale," indeed every young face was turned hopefully to Hermione, no doubt wanting to hear the famous story from the source, "and I'm sure the staff wouldn't mind the diversion."
"Not at all," Lupin responded quickly, throwing an amused look at the headmaster. "What do you say, are you up for it Hermione?"
"I, I don't know…" she said, biting her lip, and looking desperate for a way out. "I wouldn't even know where to begin and…"
"Tell us how it happened," Shaw said, with wide eyes. "Is it true that you fell off the Astronomy Tower?"
"Well, um, close, but no," Hermione replied. "I was leaving the dungeons from a detention," all of the children threw her sympathetic looks, "and I fell backwards from the top step. I was wearing a time-turner, and as I fell it swung around, throwing me into the past."
"What happened?" asked one of the younger Hufflepuffs worriedly. "Were you alright?"
"I was fine," Hermione reassured her, appearing to get into the story, as if replaying it in her memory. "Actually, I wasn't, not at first, but a Slytherin was wandering by at the time and managed to get me to the hospital wing before any damage was done." She paused. "I was very lucky he was there."
"A Slytherin!" Shaw exclaimed, seemingly scandalized by the very idea. "They'd never stop to help anyone, let alone a Gryffindor."
"Now, that's not very nice and not true at all," Hermione said, in a gently reproving voice. "In fact," she paused again, a little uncertainly, "this Slytherin turned out to be a… a great friend, even though I am, and was, a Gryffindor."
Shaw seemed suspicious of this, but let the matter rest, choosing instead to ask an apparently endless stream of questions about the seventies, and all of Hermione's experiences. Hermione, for her part, seemed to get into the story and Severus got the distinct impression that she was recalling in detail the year she had spent in his school time. She contented herself to answer all of the questions, and the students and staff were all lulled into the story as they ate, giving Severus some time to think.
Thus far she had avoided any mention of him, except for the opening statements of his rescue, and he was praying that she continued the trend. This was bad enough, hearing the story played over with no way to escape it, but to hear her talk of him in the same offhand and easy way she was relating her antics with the Gryffindors would be too much for him on this night, especially with the feelings that were beginning to resurface for her in him. Again he cursed Albus for forcing him to these dinners and began to devise strategies for departure when a question caught his attention and filled him with the deepest of dread. Shaw had asked after boyfriends, and it appeared that Hermione was actually going to answer her.
"There were only two boys who caught my eye during that time," she said, the tone of her voice becoming surprisingly soft. "The first turned out to be better as a friend and the second," here she paused for a third time in her story, looking off in the distance sadly, "well, the second turned out to be more."
"Oh, tell us about it," Shaw begged, propping up her head on her arms dreamily. "It must be a tragically romantic story."
"It is that," Lupin agreed, cutting into the story, "but I don't think we ought to pry into Hermione's…"
"No," Hermione cut him off with a raise of her hand, although her gaze was now fixed on Severus. He watched her with a carefully neutral expression, wondering what on earth she thought she was doing. "I'll tell it, it needs to be told anyway," she broke her gaze and smiled at Shaw, "to finish the story properly, right Vanessa?"
"Oh yes," the girl cooed, along with the other children around the table.
To Severus' absolute horror Hermione then began to tell their story to the entire table. She started off the story slowly and a bit jerkily, but by the time she had gotten to their first kiss she had become a master storyteller, completely enthralling the table with her tale. He, however, was not enchanted. While she was not talking in the same offhand manner the mere fact that she would relate such a private story to near strangers was enough for him to decide that the story was no longer dear to her. It filled his heart with ice, and several times he was forced to clench his fingers tightly around the arms of his chair to keep himself from shaking from his realization. Finally after what seemed a lifetime of hell, Hermione finished the story, leaving off at the end when she had left his office nearly six and a half years before.
"What happened then?" asked Shaw's friend, looking heartbroken. "You went after him, didn't you? You went back in there and got him, right?"
"Wrong," Hermione said sadly. "I did as he asked, I left I didn't return. You see, I loved him, and I knew that if I went back into the room I would lose him forever, but if I walked away with the intention to return some day, I still had a chance." She sighed heavily. "So I left, and I moved to Barcelona and I grew up, and I haven't spoken to him since, not really," she said, shaking her head slowly. "I'm sorry there isn't a better end to the story girls, but there you have it."
The conversation soon turned to other subjects as Hermione slipped away from her role as storyteller, but Severus began to wonder, unclenching his hands in silent surprise, as she stared off beyond the group of diners. The way she had ended the story was filled with such a longing sadness that he could no longer be so sure that she really believed their story to be over. More importantly, he realized, as he joined her in reverie, he wondered if he did.
After the dinner, the students and staff all sat contentedly around the table, exchanging the last of the small talk and pleasantries for the night. Severus remained quiet, as he had since Hermione had told their story. No one seemed to mind his silence, although Hermione and the headmaster had both thrown several poorly concealed glances in his direction. He was glad for the reprieve from conversation, as his mind was presently unable to concentrate on anything except for the woman sitting across the table from him. After her monologue he'd gone through a rapid succession of emotions, first hope that he still had a chance with her, then fear that he'd misread her, moving onto disgust with himself for caring so much, and finally into anger at the woman for dredging up the past. He was sure, by this last stage, that she couldn't possibly have meant anything by her story other than to amuse the children, and he was furious to have been put on display.
"Well," Albus' voice cut into his thoughts merrily, "it is getting late; time for all good children to be in their beds."
There was a resounding groan from the students, who were obviously enjoying themselves, but none of them would stand up to the headmaster, and soon they were rounded up and heading back to the dormitories. Several of the staff made their excuses and followed behind, not that Severus blamed them for retiring early; on any other occasion he would have been ahead of all of them. Tonight, however, he had business to take care of; namely putting Hermione in her place for presuming to use him as a means of entertainment. With a frown he made his way over to where she was standing, chatting drowsily with Albus.
"Excuse me," he said as he glided up beside them, grasping onto her arm a bit too tightly than could be comfortable, "but I'm afraid I must steal Miss Granger here for a moment."
"By all means," Albus replied, looking between the two of them with ill-concealed interest.
"Thank you," Severus said tersely, pulling her away from the grinning headmaster and towards the doors of the Great Hall before she could respond or protest.
"What is this all about?" she asked, grimacing a little at his grip, as they left the remaining staff behind them.
"I need to speak with you," he said, slightly leavening his grip but not quite letting go, "about your little performance tonight." He pulled her into the first empty classroom they came across, and shut the door hard behind them, letting go of her and folding his arms crossly. "I want to know what the hell you think you were doing?"
"Pardon me?" she asked, rubbing her arm and frowning at him. "Little performance?"
"You know very well what I'm talking about," he spat, "or have you already forgotten your choice to replay our entire relationship before the entire school?"
An exasperated look overtook her face, and she crossed her arms. "First of all, I never mentioned you the entire time, for all they know it could have been anybody. And second of all, I hardly told the whole school, or have you forgotten how to count?"
"You told Vanessa Shaw, which is as good as telling the entire student body," he shot back. "What on earth did you think gave you the right to do such a thing? We buried this years ago, you have no right to bring it back up."
"It's my story too," she cried, throwing up her hands, "and I wanted… needed to tell it! It may be 'buried' to you, but it is still a fresh wound for me! Do you think it's easy, keeping it inside all of the time? Knowing that you gave me up and threw me out and not being able to do or say a damn thing about it? I'm sorry if I embarrassed you tonight, but I needed to be selfish and say something." Shaking her head at him she paced a length of the room, before stalking back angrily. "You have no right to…"
Her diatribe was cut short as she stumbled into a desk, ungracefully crashing right into it. On instinct, Severus moved forward to help her back to her feet. As he helped to lift her from the floor he noticed a small gold chain hanging beneath her robes, and his breath caught at the familiarity of it. Shocked into stillness he stood holding her arms and staring at her neck. "What are you wearing?" he asked, in a harsh raspy voice.
"I know these robes aren't completely practical," she started, angrily again, "but that has nothing…"
"No," he said, pulling on the chain so it fell on top of her robes. "This."
The ruby sparkled in the dim candlelight, looking as new and beautiful as the first time he had seen her in it. Her breath hitched as it settled against the fabric, and she immediately went to cover it with her hand. "You have no right to demand I don't wear it," she said, squeezing it protectively. "It was a gift; you have no right to be mad."
"Did you do this just to spite me?" he asked, pushing away from her. "I would not have expected such cruelty from you."
"To spite you?" her voice had taken a softer, more confused tone. "How…why would this spite you?"
"I am but an old man and a fool," he said, turning his head away from her, "and I am not so easily parted from items of sentimentality. Wearing that necklace may mean nothing to you, but I still associate it with our past."
"Nothing," she said, incredulously, "how could you think it means nothing?"
"If the blithe manner in which you talked of the past is any indication, then I would even venture to say that it means less than nothing," he said, although a part of him was beginning to think that perhaps he was wrong.
"Like I said before," she countered, shaking her head, "I talked about our time together because I had to. My time spent in the past means more to me than anything else in the world and yet," she paused, biting her lip, "and yet I can't speak of it because losing you in the end hurts too much to say. Tonight I had the chance to get it off my chest, once and for all." His mouth began to harden, but she resumed speaking before he could say anything. "Once and for all because I believe…" she paused, looking at him hard, "believed that you were finished with this; believed that I didn't matter to you anymore. I'm starting to think that I was wrong. I still love you," she said, looking at him with the eyes of someone about to leap off an impossibly high cliff, "now the only question is: are you still in love with me?"
"Yes," he breathed, but heavily, as if there were a weight upon his shoulders.
She made no move towards him, which he was thankful for, but tears sprang to her eyes in obvious relief. "What do we do now?" she asked, in a trembling voice. "We still love each other, Severus. There is no reason for us to be apart."
"It won't be easy," he said warningly, conscious of the obstacles they would no doubt face.
"I know," she answered honestly. "It can't be, nothing worthwhile ever is, but it can't be harder than being apart. I'd rather die trying to make this work than live letting it go."
"Be careful what you say," he replied gruffly, his brow beginning to furrow.
"I mean what I say," she said, coming up to stand beside him, seemingly as close as she dared. "I love you Severus Snape, and I always will. I want to be with you, and I am ready for whatever obstacles we may face, including you." His eyes snapped down to meet hers and she nodded defiantly. "I'm not walking out of this room again without the intention to come back, even if you tell me not to. I won't lose you again, not a third time. We love each other; that is all that matters. We can work through the rest as it comes our way. We've withstood so much already to lose each other now. Please, Severus, tell me you aren't lost to me," she murmured, bringing up her hand to rest over his heart, which was beating faster than he'd ever felt it. "Tell me you aren't."
Severus looked at her for a long and silent moment, drinking her in greedily, and for the first real time in more than twenty years. She'd grown even more beautiful, he thought faintly, as she'd grown up. The roundness of the face he had known had become soft angles, the hair had grown and darkened, the body developed, with curves that he longed to run his hands along. Her eyes, though, he was unable to look away from. There was a maturity in the dark brown depths that hadn't been there before, a quiet change that spoke most clearly the fact that she was no longer the child that she had been. More than that, her eyes held a promise, one that spoke of everything he held dear in his heart. It spoke of their past, when they'd been so young and innocent, and falling in love had been the easiest step ever taken. When the world consisted of only them, and they'd held forever at their fingertips. It spoke of the sadness when she'd walked out of his office and out of his life seemingly forever. But what gripped at his heart was that her eyes spoke of the future, of the promise of a love yet to come, one deeper and stronger than the one they'd shared so many years before.
Though he was still afraid, and though there were dangers on their path, that look, that promise, was enough to melt his heart and bring him back to the place he had been decades ago when he'd loved her for the first time. It was enough to still the uncertainty that had haunted him for twenty five years and hold his hand out and place it on top of hers.
"With you," he said, as he brought his face down to hers to meet for what was both the thousandth and the first kiss they'd ever shared, "I am never lost."
Final Author's Note
First of all, I'd like to give a gigantic thanks to MOLLY aka RHITmcshanm who has been the best beta ever, and who has helped me so much with this story. I couldn't have done it without her constant help.
Second, I'd like to thank Rachael aka CimoreneD who always has time to listen to me whine about writing.
Lastly, I'd like to thank every person who has reviewed, e-mailed, or IMed me about "Lost." Each and every one has meant so much to me, I really can't tell you all how much I've appreciated all of the feedback. I'm still amazed at the number of reviews and messages I've gotten, and I know that without all of the support from everyone at ff.net, schnoogle, and especially WIKTT I'd never have finished the story. Thank you guys!!!!
Jen ~ VenusDeMilo