AN: Thank you to astopperindeath for her beta work, as well as to Dressagegrrrl and Hebe GB, both of whom I love more than I can say. Without their friendship, patience and careful eyes, this would have been a much lesser work. Seriously. Y'all have read my review replies, you know I need help...
Not mine, no money.
Headmaster Snape finished his last report and stubbed out his cigarette. He tidied the stack of parchment before vanishing the transfigured ashtray and clearing the room of smoke. Activating the Floo, he tossed several memos in, watching as they zipped off to their destinations. Popping a mint into his mouth, he bid the portraits good evening before climbing the stairs behind the tapestry to find his way into bed next to his snoring wife, Lenore. Obviously the mint had been wasted. Again. He cast a Silencing Charm on her, but not himself. His deviated septum trumped her sinus issues on her worst nights.
He didn't bother to examine this small bit of passive-aggressiveness. He had the first time. His tiny act of insurrection had shocked him, and he'd had difficulty sleeping, pondering the strange feelings of satisfaction and guilt. It had felt wrong to do something so patently disrespectful to the woman who had graced him with the honor of her acceptance. But that first time had been years ago. Tonight, he just flicked the candle out and turned his back on her. He slipped off to sleep thinking about requisition forms.
He knew at some point she would wake him with an elbow in the ribs and demand a respite from his own snoring. It was a petty way of forcing her to acknowledge he was there.
"Are we still having dinner with the Malfoys tonight?" Snape asked his wife from behind his newspaper.
"No, Cissy had to cancel. I told you that two days ago if you remember."
"My apologies. I've been dealing with staff requisitions all week, and it must have slipped my mind."
"Pass me the jam, dear," Lenore said in 'that' tone, the one she'd cultivated in the second year of their marriage. It was a magnificent mélange of vindictive victimization, pride, and petulance, with just a soupçon of sublime ennui tossed in.
Snape set his teacup on the saucer and folded his paper before passing her the jam.
"What are your plans for the day?" he asked with unfailingly polite interest.
She answered with her usual list of visits to other matrons and 'good works' for her many charities. Lenore Snape, nee Gibbon, was diligent about her good works. The whimsy of Fate had landed her on the wrong side of the war just by being born the sister of a Death Eater. Hard work and sheer determination had pulled her to the other side after the war, and it had been understood from the start that Severus was part of the plan. Being the wife of a hero and an important man more than mitigated being a Snape. She'd informed him of as much every anniversary for the last seven years when she gifted him with a new cravat and another logical reason to put off starting a family.
All things considered, he was still mostly pleased with his circumstances. Things could have been very different. He could be dead or rotting in Azkaban. He'd never factored in the impact his desperate message to Potter would have on the boy. It had never occurred to him even as a passing wish that he would be saved, vindicated, and respected all on the word of a boy whose very existence had been an emblem of the fact that Severus Snape was not fated to be happy.
Fate was a strange bitch. So was his wife. Coldly beautiful with her sleek, black hair and slate grey eyes, she was gifted with a practical disposition that bordered on the mercenary, yet she devoted herself to the less fortunate with an earnest intensity. Others, like Narcissa Malfoy, threw fundraisers and had their picture taken in hopes of improving their social standing. Lenore actually dirtied her hands as a form of penance, and if word happened to make the papers, all the better. She never bothered actively seeking publicity. Snape couldn't help but be drawn to her sincerity. He might have hoped for love in those first months of courting, but he was content enough with mutual respect. He was a practical man himself and had learned to stop wishing for the moon when the moon had been dashed from his sky in his youth.
He did his best to please her; she never asked for much. He'd cut his hair for the wedding, and when she had seen the negative reaction in the papers, he'd grown it out again. When she'd set up a consultation about his scalp condition, he'd dutifully gone, even though such things seemed absurdly trivial to him. One comment from her, and he'd grown it out to waist-length. On her advice, he wore it held in a clasp below his shoulders, in a style that always made him think of Dumbledore's beard. She liked it. He kept it.
In return, she—well, in return he had a wife, which was more than he'd ever thought he was entitled to.
"Isn't it time you joined the rest?" she said as she pushed her plate away.
Snape looked at the clock on the wall and set his teacup down with care. "So it is. If you will excuse me, madam. Enjoy your day." He stood and smoothed his deep-blue robes, another concession for his wife.
"Severus," she said. He stopped and turned to her with tilted head, raised eyebrows, and an anemic spark of hope. "I dislike waking up to sheets that smell of smoke. You know it bothers my sinuses."
"My apologies, Lenore. It won't happen again."
"See that it doesn't."
Snape nodded and swept out of their sitting room and down the stairs. He passed through his office with his usual brief greeting to the portraits and his customary nod towards Dumbledore, before continuing out and down to join his staff and students for breakfast in the Great Hall.
"Viktor! Viktor, get off me! We're late!" Hermione Krum wiggled out from under her husband's sweaty leg and gave him a light slap on his bare rump. He mumbled and rolled away from her as she dashed for the bathroom. When she came out, he hadn't moved. "I mean it, Viktor. Get up!" The panicked tone had been replaced by annoyance, and he lifted a bleary-eyed head at her and scowled.
"It is Sunday, Ninny."
"You keep saying that as if it means something. You know the rules."
Viktor grumbled and shoved the blankets off him.
"After this semester, we vill discuss life plans," he said grumpily as he waddled off to the shower.
She watched his naked body until it was out of sight behind the closed door. "You keep saying that too," she said quietly.
The Krums had only been on staff at Hogwarts for a few months. Viktor had been recruited to teach DADA when Madam Restringer had left at the end of the last school year. He'd been assured that the position would be permanent if he chose to keep it. Hermione had been hastily conscripted a month into the term by Headmaster Snape. Professor Binns had suddenly realized he was, in fact, dead and had walked out of his classroom mid-lecture and dissipated in the hallway. Her fate as a teacher was waiting to be decided by the Ministry Board based on her performance.
It had been a shockingly stressful time at first. Binns had been famous for generations due to his ability to wring the last drop of interest out of a subject before presenting it to his students. Therefore, Hermione had assumed the class wouldn't be that hard to take over and had dived right in with aplomb. However, the Ministry had seen fit to make some changes to the curriculum, and her first two months had resulted more in barely contained terror than competence.
Both Minerva McGonagall and Filius Flitwick had been instrumental in helping her retain her sanity. Headmaster Snape's unfailing assumption that she could handle it had gone far in helping her recover her confidence. He'd never given her a word of encouragement; he'd just treated her as if she was already doing it well, and she'd managed to find it in herself to make opinion fact.
She'd finally found her center after the Christmas holiday and was thoroughly enjoying herself, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that Viktor was chafing. Having to be present at every breakfast was only one of his issues. Hermione was sure he would opt not to continue at the end of the year. She was also sure he would expect her to leave with him.
She walked out into the sitting room and found two memos on the carpet in front of the fireplace. Picking them up, she found her request to have the charms on the chalkboard in her classroom overhauled had been approved. Viktor's third request for new training dummies for his classroom had been denied. She crumpled her memo hastily and tossed it into the flames to burn before dropping his back to the carpet and scurrying to the door.
"I do understand, Viktor. It's terribly important, I know, but you must understand there's a budget. Certain things are just unattainable right now. The Board did say if you decided to keep the job, they would see about making more changes."
"I tell you it is an insult! They do not really vant me. He doesn't vant me!" Viktor flung a hand at the head table as they entered the noisy hall. Both teachers fell into their customary smiles and waved at students before Hermione leaned in close and hissed in her husband's ear.
"The Headmaster? Don't be ridiculous. He's never said anything of the sort. And keep your voice down."
"He doesn't haff to. I can just tell. He's always with this… aloof."
"He's aloof to everyone. He's always been that way."
"No wonder his vife is unhappy," Viktor muttered. "At least she doesn't haff to come to all these meals."
"Madam Snape isn't unhappy; she's just aloof as well. And she doesn't have to be here because she's not staff. Now, enough. We'll speak more later."
They separated and walked to their assigned chairs. Hermione smiled and greeted Hagrid and waved to Minerva before sitting down next to Pomona Sprout.
"Good morning, Hermione. What are you plans for the day?"
"Morning, Pomona. I'm actually at a loose end. Viktor has a lot of grading and doesn't like me to distract him. I might hide somewhere with a good book. You?"
"I have a new batch of Whistling Thistle to sort out in greenhouse three. You could join me if you wish. I could use the extra hands. Filius is busy."
"What do you need done?"
"I need to sort them according to pitch, and my ear isn't what it used to be."
"Well, I'm afraid all you get are the extra hands. Viktor assures me that I'm tone deaf and that I shouldn't be allowed to even hum in public."
Pomona chuckled. "I'll take the hands. I know someone with a good ear. It's just a matter of finding the right way to bribe him." Sprout nodded towards the Headmaster, and Hermione looked over to see him scowling into his tea.
As always, her thoughts about him fell into a confused jumble. There was no doubt in her mind that he was an excellent Headmaster, but these past months hadn't made getting used to him any easier. He was too different. His demeanor was much improved from his teaching days. She attributed that to the lack of psychotic villains trying to overthrow the world. He'd become mesmerizing in a way, and she was fascinated by him. He wasn't exactly pleasant, but he wasn't nearly as fearsome as he used to be unless there was cause. He could still make a student dissolve in tears, but saved it for when that student had truly deserved it.
Hermione grimaced at the memory of him making her cry for no good reason when she was a student. Times had been so different then. Students and staff, Death Eaters and Order members, they'd all lived in a volatile cauldron waiting for one wrong spark to blast their world into ruin.
However, the war had been won; the dead had been laid to rest. Witches and wizards had turned their minds toward their happily-ever-afters. Even Professor Snape had found someone with whom to settle down.
Hermione had been surprised and pleased to hear about his engagement and subsequent wedding. Snape finding love seemed to put the final flourish on the concept of peace. It made the very idea more believable to her. Everyone knew how his devotion to Harry's mother drove him all those years; for him to find another signaled a sea change in the world.
She'd met the woman several times over the years at Memorial functions and found her to be strikingly beautiful if a bit cold. She had the same regal bearing and too-thinness that the upper-class women of society everywhere displayed. It was the same look that always managed to generate envy in front of a mirror and pity in front of a plate of pasta in the other ninety-nine percent of the female population. Despite Viktor and Ron's sniggering remarks about Beauty and the Beast, Hermione had thought they'd made a rather handsome couple.
However, these last months of working near him seemed to highlight an erroneous assumption on her part. Headmaster Snape hardly seemed to be living happily-ever-after. Closer contact revealed he still radiated the same sad fatalism that he had as a teacher. He was just far less angry. She didn't understand.
She thought about Viktor's snide remark about Madam Snape being unhappy and wondered if that was what she was picking up. Was his wife unhappy with him? Was he unhappy with her? Was there something else entirely going on? She rarely saw them together outside of official functions, but was aware that appearances were forever deceiving. The Snapes were both reserved and undemonstrative people. There was no way to guess the truth.
She took a deep breath and shook her head. Useless and unproductive speculation on other people's personal lives always made her feel sheepish. Whatever was bothering the Headmaster, she would never know. One thing hadn't changed since her years as his student; he was still intensely private and did not tolerate people nosing around where they shouldn't.
She blinked several times to clear her thoughts as Pomona rose from the table amidst the noise of students bustling out the doors of the hall. "What time do you need me there?" Hermione asked.
"Oh, let's see… How does ten sound?"
"I'll be there."
Hermione smiled and waved as the other teacher left. When she looked back along the table, she found only the Headmaster had remained, staring out at the departing students with a speculative expression that seemed to leak melancholy.
She hastily finished her meal and bid him a pleasant day and scuttled away before he could reply.
Hermione arrived at ten on the dot dressed in Muggle clothes that she wouldn't mind getting filthy. The plants on the table chimed in the breeze as she closed the door behind her.
"Bless you, dear," Sprout said when she saw her. "I've got them all potted up, and we're just waiting for our resident pitch-perfect ear before we can begin. We'll be sorting them by note so here's what you'll need to do…"
Hermione listened intently as Pomona told her about how she hoped to plant them in clusters according to sound and hoped to have Filius orchestrate a tune once they knew what she had. Together they began to set up. Hermione was just finishing with the labels when she heard the thistles chime again. She looked up to see the Headmaster at the door. He wore his old, many-buttoned, black robes with his hair pulled back tight from his face. He looked strange to her. She hadn't had that many chances to talk with him, so she really couldn't say she knew him at all, but she could say for sure she had never seen him in quite this way before. His robes called up the image of the old, familiar Potions master, but the relaxed stance and slight sparkle in his eyes were almost shocking in their foreignness. He looked… human.
"Pomona, I assumed the Whomping Willow sapling that arrived in my office with a note to meet you here is either a bribe of some sort, or signifies you're ready to finally start our affair. Since I'm unsure, I thought I would pop down here and find out. Just so you know, I did take a shower in order to be prepared." His glittering black eyes landed on Hermione, crouched on the floor amongst more pots of thistle, and shuttered instantly. "Close your mouth, Professor Krum. You make an unbecoming guppy." His body stiffened as she watched, and the relaxed informality vanished. It struck her that something rare had just died.
Hermione snapped her mouth closed and pivoted her head towards Sprout who just stood there beaming and pointing proudly to her thistles. Obviously, this form of humor was not unusual between them. Hermione felt like an outsider and desperately wanted to find a way in. She wanted him to be as relaxed around her as he was with his older staff. She clutched her thistles and stood up.
"Ah, a bribe it is. To think, I wasted all that water," he said with a droll sneer. Sprout chuckled, and Hermione smiled timidly at him as he walked over and inspected the plants. "They look like marvelous specimens, Professor Sprout. You should be proud."
"Thank you, Headmaster. Do you think you could do the honors?"
"Certainly. Are you ready?"
"I think so. Hermione? Are you ready, dear?"
The Headmaster walked to the first plant on the table and raised his hand and wafted it just above the plant. The spiky, purple globe chimed.
"E," he pronounced.
Hermione blinked as Pomona slapped a label on its pot. He stepped to the next one and repeated his movement, pronouncing the next plant a B. Hermione pulled the ones he'd identified away and pushed more plants towards him, but he gestured for her to line them up around the edge of the table instead. He proceeded to walk in a slow circle around the large potting table waving to each plant and announcing its note. He picked up the pace, and Hermione scrambled to set up the plants. When she'd filled the edge of the first table, she began to ring the next. Pomona's plan had fallen by the wayside, but no one seemed to mind since the Headmaster could identify the notes faster than they could place the plants in front of him. Hermione was in awe.
"C. B. B. D. E. A. A. G. A. B. C. G. F. A. Granger. Watch. The. Cabbage. A. D. E. G. C. B. D. F. G. E…"
She was so startled that he'd used her maiden name that it took her a moment before she looked behind her and saw she was about to back into a Chinese Chomping Cabbage. She jumped away with a squeak and laughed before hurrying to push the already identified plants to the center of the first table and loading up the edges with more.
Hermione and Pomona danced and whirled in circles around the work area as the Headmaster continued methodically on with his task. Twice, the two women tangled together and laughed so hard they missed what note he had called. The look of glittering amusement in his eyes and the smirk that was really just a repressed grin made her truly feel like she was finally accepted into the secret society of people Headmaster Snape considered worthy of his time, and she flushed with pride.
It took just under thirty minutes for him to identify all of the thistles. By the time he was done, the two women were tired out, both from laughing and their efforts to keep up. They collapsed on a bench as the Headmaster stood over them with his arms crossed over his chest and a glorious smirk that Hermione felt privileged to see.
"My congratulations, Pomona. You have a strong pentatonic scale and enough other tricks to create a nice dirge. I shall look forward to listening to what you come up with. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a school to run." He turned to Hermione, and his face stiffened back into a mask. "Professor Krum, may I have a word with you?"
"Of course, Headmaster," she said with a smile as she pushed herself off the bench. "I'll be just a moment, Pomona."
"Nonsense," Sprout replied with a wave of her hand. "We're done here. I'll just tidy my babies up a bit, and then I'm off myself. Thank you, Headmaster. It was an honor as always." She nodded respectfully to him, and then an impish twinkle flared in her eyes. "I'm terribly sorry we didn't have time to start our affair, but I've not forgotten. Don't you worry."
Snape nodded with a twitch of his lips before turning and gliding out the door. Hermione scurried to catch up.
"You were marvelous!" she blurted as she reached him. "Of course, to be honest, I wouldn't know if you were just reciting gibberish, but it was still rather thrilling to watch. What instrument do you play?" she asked as she bounced along backwards in front of him. She stumbled as she saw his face cloud over.
"I don't. It's just a useless party trick." He stopped suddenly, and she had to catch herself and walk back towards him. "Professor Krum, I do not take kindly to my wife being the subject of petty gossip among students. I will not tolerate such behavior from my staff. Do I make myself clear?"
Hermione felt the smile on her face crumble as she struggled with her disorientation. "You mean the flirting with Pomona? I know it was a joke, Headmas—"
"I'm not talking about Professor Sprout," he snapped, waving a hand dismissively behind him. "That's been a running bit for twenty years. I'm talking about the little scene you and your husband put on when you arrived for breakfast this morning."
She took a step back, shocked at the venom behind his words. "I don't—Oh! I'm terribly sorry, Headmaster. Viktor and I weren't gossiping. He was… he woke up tired and longed for the days when he could have a bit of a lie in is all. He meant no disrespect to Madam Snape. Not at all." She struggled to convey what she needed to without making her and her husband look worse than they already did in the angered eyes of her employer. "I have the utmost respect for you and your wife, Headmaster. I understand your need for privacy, I assure you."
"It might come as a great shock to you, Professor, but I was once a spy," he hissed with nasty sarcasm. "Reading lips was a skill I acquired early in the game. I know exactly to whom he intended disrespect. I believe I have said enough on the subject. If I find my marriage the subject of a public spat between you and your husband again, it will mean your immediate dismissal. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir!" She reached out an imploring hand. "Oh, please—" Her words choked to a stop in her throat when he turned his back on her and stalked away. She tried to stem the sudden flow of tears and had difficulty swallowing. Her mouth felt like it was full of ashes.
The Headmaster was on his second glass of Ogden's Old. It had been a day full of disparities that had left him far too deeply buried in his own thoughts.
The highlight had been playing with the thistle. He'd enjoyed himself immensely. He'd been leery of the History of Magic teacher when he'd seen her there, but listening to her laugh with Sprout had been infectious. It had been so long since he'd indulged in simple pleasure.
He grimaced, and his hand tightened on the glass. He'd found a way to ruin it fast enough. The heaviness had set in quickly as the last floral note had quieted down. For the first time, he'd seriously resented having to go back to this tower. He hadn't wanted to return and be alone again. He'd considered asking the two women to join him for a stroll into Hogsmeade just to prolong the amity, but feared he would look a bit desperate if he did. If he was being honest with himself, and he nearly always was, he would admit that he'd grown quickly spiteful of the two women for their carefree way. The younger one in particular. Snape couldn't help feeling a slight contempt for the young married couple anyway. They seemed truly happy together, and they had their whole lives ahead of them to be so. They made him feel old which offended his battered dignity. He'd lashed out at her when he'd known full well it had been her husband that had made his marriage common gossip, and well, he'd destroyed what fun had been had.
His gut clenched at the memory of Granger's face. The smile freezing and then sliding away as if melting, before the fear and anxiety took over. It had left him feeling like a bully. He still felt like an arse. It had needed to be said, however. How could he keep order if his staff didn't respect him?
He closed his eyes. The warmth from the liquor spread through him as he listened to the Floo activate. He opened his eyes as his wife stamped into their sitting room spreading ash and slush.
"You're home late," he said. "Did you get anything to eat? Would you like me to order you something from the kitchens?"
"No, I've eaten," she said with a tired sigh as she pulled off her gloves. "I helped Petunia Zimmings find her father on the street. We got him home, poured him into bed, and then I cooked her and her sister a meal and got them into bed. I ate at the Leaky when I was done. Did you get them on the scholarship list for next year? I need to get them away from that odious man."
"Yes, my dear. They are taken care of. Books, uniforms, the works. I just hope that escaping to Hogwarts is all they hope it is. At least they have each other, being twins." He rose from the chair and took her cloak, stroking her neck as he did so. "You are a remarkable woman. Taking care of those children is very admirable."
She flinched slightly and stepped away. "You've been drinking."
"I still am." He waved a hand at the half-full glass on the table. "Only my second. You know I've not overdone it in years. I wouldn't disrespect your wishes like that."
She narrowed her eyes at him slightly, but seemed content with what she saw. She sat primly on the sofa. "Perhaps some tea would be nice," she said.
He went to the Floo and tossed in some powder and placed an order to the kitchens. When he'd sat back down in his chair, he just observed her.
The tea arrived on the table, and she poured while he continued to watch her. She set the pot down with a clatter and turned to him.
"What do you find so interesting? Have I got something in my hair?"
His eyes flicked to her hair and back down to her face.
"Is it so wrong that I would want to look upon my wife? You're still a very beautiful woman."
She frowned at him, ever suspicious of his motives, even after all these years. Such an oddly fragile thing she was. Full of strength on the outside and broken into so many pieces on the inside.
"Are you unhappy, Lenore? Here? With me?"
She frowned and gave him an assessing stare. "What's this about, Severus? Aren't you a little young for a mid-life crisis? Is that what this is? Seven years of marriage, and suddenly you're full of doubts?"
He shook his head slowly. "No. I'm content." He brushed at a piece of lint on his robes. "I overheard a comment about me by one of the staff. It was: 'No wonder his wife is unhappy.' It has been on my mind all day. Are you unhappy, Lenore?"
She drew herself up. "It seems the more relevant question is why are you allowing your staff to gossip about you? If something like that should make the papers, I shudder to think what the impact would be."
He turned away from her with a scowl.
"The persons responsible have been dealt with. As for the papers, they print what they like, and that sort of thing is in there all the time. No one pays their gossip any mind at all." He grabbed up his glass and took another sip. "You evade the question. What am I to infer from that?"
"Now you are just being maudlin. You know I detest that in a man. I've had a trying day, Severus. Why must you attack me as soon as I come in the door?"
He closed his eyes as he swallowed another sip and surrendered to the feeling of warmth that spread from his belly.
"It was not my intention to attack you. In fact, I've been sitting here waiting to see if there was any way in which I could make you happy."
"Obviously it is you who are unhappy. What do you want from me, Severus? Do you want me to simper at your displays of wit? Would you like me to wait on you hand and foot? Show more cleavage? Do I need to act more like a Death Eater's tart now?"
Snape surged up out of the chair. "Don't you dare!" he bellowed. "You cannot pin that on me! You know I never wanted that! You damned well know that's not what I want!"
"That's why I married you!" she snapped back. "Because you didn't want that! Why the sudden demands? Why can't you be happy with me the way that I am!"
"I am! I could be! I just need to hear… I just need to hear that you are pleased with your choice. Not read it in a card I know Narcissa picked out for you to give me on our anniversary." Lenore blanched. He scrubbed a hand down his face and took a breath. "Is it really so wrong to want your wife to love you?" he asked, dejectedly.
She stood up from the sofa. Her fists were clenched as white as her face. "Yes. Yes, it is wrong. Love hurts us, Severus. It was the first thing we agreed on."
"But what about passion, Lenore? Don't you miss that? Maybe we need to get hurt a little in order to feel at all."
She stepped away from the sofa and walked towards the bedroom. "There is enough pain out there that could be helped through my productive efforts. Seeing young girls struggling for a decent meal hurts me enough, Severus. I don't need your pain, too. Spare me that if you have any decency."
He sighed in defeat and drank the last of his Firewhisky. He drew himself upright and clothed himself in what was left of his dignity.
"While we are on the subject of decency, wife, perhaps you could put a little more effort into faking happiness so you don't become common gossip amongst the staff again. You should be well-practiced at faking it by now." He set his glass down hard on the table and stalked out the door in a swirl of robes.
He stalked along the darkened corridors looking for miscreant students. A whisper of wind—the merest sigh of cloth—signaled someone up ahead. He came around a turn and saw the hem of a robe disappear around a corner. He increased his pace. Rounding the corner, he saw a girl running. A seventh-year, perhaps a tall sixth-year, by the size. It was hard to judge in the dim light. All he could make out was an enormous amount of hair and long, red robes. A Gryffindor headed for the kitchens.
Severus had let his old animosities die as best he could. As Headmaster, they were all his students now, but deep down, he was no better at staying impartial than Dumbledore had been. Unlike Dumbledore, he didn't elevate his former house. He struggled not persecute the one he'd learned to despise in his youth. All bets were off tonight. When he caught her, there would be no way they would win the cup this year.
He put on a last burst of speed and reached out and grabbed her by her upper arm.
Before he could say a word, the girl spun around and clouted him across the face.
"Who the hell do you think you are, laying a hand on me?" shouted a familiar voice. "I told you I wanted to be alone, you bastard!"
A quick Lumos, and his wand flared bright. He watched as Professor Krum's eyes widened with shock, and then all the blood drained from her face.
"Oh! Oh, Mother of Mercy! I'm so sorry, Headmaster! I thought you were… someone else." Her voice trailed off, and he watched as fresh tears tracked down her face. Her eyes were already red and swollen.
"Who did you think I was?" he said, his voice thick with many flavors of anger.
She didn't answer, just looked at the floor.
"Did you think I was your husband?" He shook her arm slightly when she didn't answer. "Did he do something to you, Granger?"
Her head came up, and he saw bewilderment on her face.
"Krum. It's Krum. That's the second time today you called me Granger."
He was thrown by her words. "I—my apologies. I don't know why I misspoke." He realized he was still gripping her arm and released her. "I repeat my question. Has he done something to you?"
"No. Not in the way you mean." She rubbed at her arm, and he hoped he hadn't left a bruise. He would send her some bruise paste, just in case. He knew he would need some for his cheek anyway.
"Why were you running in the dark?" he asked. "I thought you were a student."
She ran a shaking hand through her wild mane of hair. She'd been a student herself the last time he'd seen it so unkempt. She'd taken to wearing it throttled into control for longer than he cared to remember.
"I was heading to the kitchens for some tea," she said. "I heard footsteps and thought…"
"You thought your husband had come after you to finish an argument?"
"Basically, yes, sir. I'm very sorry."
He waved her worry aside.
"A woman could do worse than punch first when she's grabbed in the dark of the night." He took a deep breath. "So reassure me that my Defense Professor doesn't abuse my History Professor."
"No, sir. Not at all."
"And does my History Professor abuse my Defense Professor?"
"Not unless throttling him repeatedly in my head counts."
He gave an understanding snort.
"Would you mind if I join you for tea, Professor? I think we could both use a calming cup."
"Are you sure your History Professor isn't going to lose her job for punching the Headmaster?"
"Only if you tell anyone while I'm still Headmaster."
"I would have to be incredibly stupid to want to brag about something like that."
He smirked and led her towards the kitchens.
"You should be proud, you know," he said. "It's been decades since the last person actually landed one on me. Not counting spells, of course."
"I won't ask for details," she said with a quiet laugh of her own.
"You wouldn't get any," he assured her.
They made their way to the kitchens in companionable silence. Once there, the house-elves were tripping over themselves to please, and a simple pot of tea became a veritable feast of puddings.
"Tell me what you two argued about," he said, waving a forkful of tart.
"Am I telling a friend, or am I telling my employer?" she replied evasively.
"Let's meet halfway and think of it as telling your former teacher."
She smiled wryly and said, "Because when you were my teacher you always exuded an air that solicited private confidences…"
He grimaced. "You have a point. Although in my defense, I spent a lot of time listening to angst-ridden Slytherins. Perhaps you should think of me as a fellow Order member instead."
"That would work," she said with a nod. She pushed her hair back off her face. "It started over the matter you addressed earlier today and progressed on and off all day. To make a long story short, Viktor has decided we won't renew our contracts next year and will leave at the end of term."
Snape winced at the news. "And you objected to his decision? Or the fact that he made it for both of you?"
She scowled in anger. "I have to choose between them? I can't object to both? I'm tired of traipsing after him. I don't want to leave. I've worked my arse off to learn how to be a good teacher in a short amount of time. I'm proud of myself. I enjoy what I do. I've been living in constant uncertainty as to whether or not the Ministry will even offer me the job again next year, and he's got his knickers in a twist because he has to wake up early seven days a week for ten months out of the year, when the job is his for the taking. He's spoiled. He doesn't have to work, you know. He made a fortune playing Quidditch. He enjoys teaching. He just dislikes being told what to do when he knows he really doesn't have to."
"I assume since he doesn't have to work, that means he thinks you don't have to either," he said.
"That sums it up nicely." She waved a hand into the distance. "That's the way it always was before Binns had his great revelation, and you offering me the job. When he played Quidditch, we just lived out of suitcases. The two years he taught at Durmstrang, I had absolutely nothing to do, and I didn't like it one bit. He told me to think of it as having all the time I wanted to research anything I wanted, but the reality was rather different. Without direction, I took no satisfaction in it. Pure research is fine when you're experienced, but when you don't know what you don't know, you need someone to tell you where to look. It didn't take long for me to end up passionate about collecting new patterns for crocheting doilies. I thought I would lose my mind.
"Coming home was such a relief. When the Ministry sent that first letter, I pestered him to reply. He was done with teaching at Durmstrang anyway. The school is far too rigid. I can see why he chafes under other people's rules; it's a harsh place. We both thought he would be happier here, and he was. I was too. It felt like home, and I could see Harry and Ron by just stepping through a Floo. When Binns faded away, I felt so terrible for being ecstatic, but it seemed like the angels had answered my dreams."
He snorted, and she gave him an annoyed glance.
"Gryffindors. You're all so bloody blind when you want to be."
"What are you saying?" she asked with suspicion.
He sat back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair, pulling the clasp out and letting it fall before scrubbing his hands at his scalp.
"I was hounded. Every day I had Filius and Hagrid in one ear and Minerva in the other ear twittering on about what a waste of talent is was that you were just a housewife."
"Are you saying—"
"That Binns might have had a bit of help in coming to terms with his nonexistence? Yes. It was lose the teacher that had turned eight generations against bothering with history, or lose either Filius or Minerva. They were both threatening to retire so you could take their job. I'm sure you can appreciate why I might want my students to learn not to repeat history."
"How did you—?"
"It was simple, really. I told him that I had arranged for a Time Turner so he could go back and witness the Goblin Wars, but he had to be ready to go as soon as it arrived. The day he disappeared, I showed up in the doorway and held up a watch on a chain. He walked out the door, took the watch, and faded away."
"How did you know it would work?"
"Binns was stuck. He needed to get unstuck. Only his heart's desire would do that."
"What about the watch? Was it magical?"
"No. Just an ordinary time piece. Isn't it traditional to get a watch when you retire?"
"I feel dreadful!" she cried as she sloshed her tea all over the table.
"What on earth for?"
"What for? You lied to him, and he died! Just so I could have a job!"
"He was already dead, Granger. And how do you know he's not off watching the Goblin Wars anyway? The power of suggestion is a potent thing."
She swiped at the spilled tea with her wand and took a deep breath. "I hope so. It would be lovely to think he was off observing the minutiae he always found so fascinating." Her face changed from worry to curiosity in an eye blink. "Why do you keep calling me Granger?"
He came up short and stared at her again. "I don't know. I think you're just always going to be Granger to me. If Potter was to change his name, I doubt seriously I would ever get that right, either."
She smiled at that. "That does make a sort of sense. Call me what you like then, Headmaster. I don't mind."
He harrumphed and sipped his tea.
"So what do you think you will do? The position is yours next year if you chose, you know. It was Filius' idea to make you think you were up against the wall. He said you needed a challenge after so long adrift."
Hermione looked down at her hands.
"I don't know. Knowing what everyone did, and Binns' sacrifice does add a bit of weight. I'll need time to think. I want to stay, but I don't want to harm my marriage. Does that sound too Hufflepuff?"
Snape gave her a long, hard stare. "No. A marriage should be worth sacrifice," he said with feeling. Her look turned speculative, and he turned away before she saw too much.
"Your cheek is swelling," she said, clumsily switching the topic away.
He closed his eyes in relief and prodded the bruise gently with his fingertips.
"It was a good hit," he said with emphasis. He turned his head farther away. "Gibby!" An elf popped up at his elbow. "Fetch me some Bruise Paste from the infirmary, if you would." The elf popped away without a word. "Gibby's mute. That's why he's my personal favorite." He explained as he gathered his hair back off his face into the clasp again. The jar appeared on the table with a soft pop. "He's also rather unsocial," he added, lifting the lid off the jar.
"Another point in his favor?" she quipped.
"Indeed." He scooped up a dollop and started to smooth it over his cheek. "You should take as much time as you need in making your decision, Gra—Krum. Bollocks. You do realize Krum is a rather insipid name, don't you?" She laughed at him, and he scowled. "Bad form to laugh at your employer."
"I'm not. I'm laughing at my fellow Order Member. Why don't you call me Hermione?"
"Too informal. Must keep the lines clearly defined, don't you know. It says so in the Headmaster's handbook."
"There's a handbook?"
"Yes, and each chapter is kept up on the walls in frames to twitter at you if you do something wrong."
"Ah. The portraits, of course," she said with a laugh. "But you don't mind breaking the rules with Pomona or Minerva or Filius…"
He gave her a wry smile. "First of all, they were colleagues for uncounted years. Before that, they all caught me doing something embarrassing as a student at one time or another. It's hard to maintain boundaries with a professor that remembers walking in on you popping pimples in the boys' lav." He waved a hand dismissively. "Besides, they all know the protocols and have enough tact to address me in the correct manner depending on the situation. I have no such assurances with you. I seem to recall a tendency to flout the rules whenever you saw fit. Best not to court disaster. I shall keep you in your place. Mark my words."
"Yes, Headmaster," she replied with cheek. "Here, you keep missing the same spot." She dipped two fingers into the jar and massaged it gently into his temple. She had the same firm but light touch as Madame Pomfrey, he noted with clinical detachment. "As for Viktor and me, I'll keep you informed about my decision. It's only fair after everything everyone did. There. That should be gone in no time."
"Thank you. I would appreciate updates in the matter, and you can be assured I will be discreet." He capped the jar and handed it to her. "Your arm. I might have been a little rough," he said. "My apologies."
"Thank you, and you're forgiven. Easily." She took the jar and then gave him a direct stare. "Did you want to talk about why you were storming through the castle in such a foul mood? I'm all ears. It's the least I can do, and I can keep secrets as well, you know."
He gave her a polite twitch of a smile and declined. "I've had enough conversation for one night, if it's all the same to you, Granger. Boundaries and protocols and all that."
"I understand. 'Uneasy lies the head…?'"
"Precisely," he replied. "Go to bed, Professor. And speak to your husband when your tempers have cooled. Passion can only ever get in the way."
She gave him a look that seemed oddly shocked before bidding him good night and climbing out the portrait hole.
He sat at the table lost in his thoughts, vaguely staring at the place she'd occupied until the elves started to appear in order to get ready for breakfast. Rubbing a hand across the stubble on his face, he pushed up from his chair with a sigh.
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