The portrait was insufferable. Hermione felt her temper rising. But then she felt her temper rising just about every time she had to listen to this former headmaster. And – she hated to admit it – he did have a point. "I apologize," she said stiffly. "Now would you tell us?"
"A 'please' wouldn't hurt." Phineas Black waited expectantly.
Hermione closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Please," she said through gritted teeth.
"Very well." Phineas glanced in Snape's direction, for the first time looking slightly discomfited. "But I wouldn't want to bore you with ancient history, Severus. Unlike other people I could mention, you are a busy and hardworking man, and surely there are other things to occupy your attention. I wouldn't want to keep you from your work."
"Oh, I assure you I'd very much like to find out why I would suddenly find myself amidst humpbacked ungulates," Snape said dryly.
The portrait shrugged his shoulder. "As you wish. But I must warn you that you may not appreciate... Oh well, I suppose it might all be for the best. Getting things out into the open and such." He cleared his throat. "Ursula—"
"Ursula? Who's Ursula?" Neville broke in.
"Ursula Flint was my wife, Longbottom. Now if you'd rather hear yourself talk instead of letting me finish my sentences, I could just stop every couple of words to let you ask irrelevant questions. Would that be suitable?"
"Er, no. Sorry." Neville looked chastened. "Please continue."
"Glad to have your permission. As I had started to say, Ursula, my wife, was none too pleased when we had to move to Hogwarts. You can imagine the Headmaster's Tower is not ideal as family living quarters. The younger ones roaming between levels, knocking things over, interrupting my work – but one has to do what tradition demands, and this has been the traditional abode of headmasters and headmistresses from time immemorial."
"You lived here with a family?" It took Hermione a while to wrap her brain around that. This scrawny man with his prissy beard and the screechy voice – he had been a father? A husband? She'd seen the tapestry hanging in Grimmauld Place so many times, seen the names and the dates – and it had never computed that those names connected to real people. That this portrait had once worked and breathed and kissed his wife and played silly games with his children in this tower. Well, maybe not the silly games. Black wasn't the silly game type. "Really? How many children?"
Phineas looked daggers at her. "Five. Three boys and two girls. Did you think the Tower has always been the domain of male and female spinsterhood the way it has been these last few decades?"
Snape cleared his throat. "If we could get back to the book?"
"Ah, yes. Well, Ursula's Uncle Balbus – a gifted wizard, that man, even if a bit peculiar – gave her the book. Not that he would ever breathe a word of how he managed to bespell it." All these years later, Black still sounded disgruntled. "My suspicion is he actually purchased it elsewhere and merely passed it off as his own work. I don't think he could have resisted the temptation to show off further had he really possessed the skill to create such a thing. However he got it, I have to admit it was a blessing. You wouldn't imagine how hard it is to be alone with several small children and responsibility for the entire school. If it hadn't been for this book, we would have never had the chance to get away. In its prime, this book took us all over the world from the comfort of our sitting room. Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Egypt, China, Japan, Fiji, Peru…" He actually looked slightly misty eyed. "Alas, from the looks of it, it seems likely Granada and Florence have been lost. Pity, that. I always liked the Alhambra."
"So this was your book." Snape drummed his fingers against his arm. "I wonder how you lost track of such a precious possession. Do you have an explanation for how it ended up in this condition?"
A shadowed, pained expression passed over Phineas Nigellus Black's face, and for a moment he was silent.
Hermione had always, in a strange way, liked the shrewd little wizard, even if he did annoy the living daylights out of her. But she had never before felt sorry for him, until now. Something about the look on his face… .
Phineas straightened up as his face grew hard. "All I know is that after about twelve years, it stopped performing properly. Right after Cygnus was sorted, and right before Ursula decided to default on her responsibilities and her marital vows and move back to Grimmauld Place for good. I always assumed she had taken it with her. Apparently not."
Snape frowned. "The book malfunctioned?"
Phineas's voice sounded bitter and hollow. "Oh, no. There was nothing wrong with the book."
"It has to do with—," Phineas gave a little cough, "—how the book works."
"Ah yes. I'm glad we are finally getting to that," Snape said pointedly.
Black hesitated again. "As it so happens, the book functions only under… certain conditions. You see, it only works for—," he coughed again, "—people who have, erm, amorous feeling for each other." He gave Hermione a tart look. "People in, well, love."
There was stunned silence, only interrupted by a tittering giggle from Elfrida Clagg.
"I think I should probably go now." Neville was slinking toward the door.
"Good idea." Hermione's voice sounded hoarse to her own ears. As the door closed behind Neville, she looked nervously at Snape. He was giving a good impression of a volcano about to blow.
"You see," Phineas's voice sounded surprisingly nervous too, "that's why it didn't work when Granger read it by herself. Or with Mr. Longbottom. They're merely friends, you see."
"Preposterous!" The word exploded into the room as Snape recovered his faculties. "You must be out of your mind." His mouth opened and closed. For once, the Defense master seemed lost for words.
The portraits weren't.
"Not as preposterous as all that." Elfrida picked up her knitting again. "You should see some of the mail that comes through this office, from parents who still think a former Death Eater isn't exactly suitable teacher material. She always comes to your defense."
"But then so does Minerva," Alfred Fabet piped up. "Just as Albus did in his time. As he would tell you if he were here." He looked over at the empty frame with an envious expression – as head of numerous international organizations in his lifetime, Dumbledore had more extensive travel opportunities than the rest of the portraits. His likeness hung in buildings all over the world.
"Yes, but does Hermione offer other professors help in grading their papers?" Dilys Derwent asked. "If she does, I haven't noticed."
"And I haven't seen dear Severus turn down the offers," Barbara Cue chimed in.
"Going by purely quantitative analysis, you are up here an average 225 percent longer than in previous years." Dexter Fortescue (1597- 1613) had been the Arithmancy professor before ascending to the headmastership.
"And don't think we haven't noticed how you drum up frivolous requisitions to have a reason to come up here and complain," Lowden Clear trumpeted.
"There, you see. Everyone has noticed." Phineas Nigellus folded his hands over each other, giving Snape an avuncular smile. "It might be hard to own up to, but I am afraid the spell doesn't lie. It's all for the best though, since both you and I know how very unsuitable such a relationship would be. I'd hoped to talk this through with Miss Granger in private, but in a way it is good to have this out in the open. It's only when one faces situations head-on that appropriate steps can be taken to avoid awkward entanglement in the future." Phineas's smile wavered as he took in the look on Snape's face. "You'll thank me for this one day. I feel quite certain there is a suitable witch closer to your own age and status out there somewhere, if you just keep looking. This little infatuation will be over in no time at all."
Hermione, watching the succession of expressions on Severus's face – fury, disbelief, bitterness, and something else, something heartbreaking – grabbed her courage by the horns and held on for dear life. "It's lasted three years for me." She hated how croaky her voice sounded. "I've felt like that ever since my seventh year." She willed herself to look into his eyes. "School girl crush, I thought. But I couldn't get you out of my mind, that whole year working at the Ministry. It's the reason I came back."
For a moment, her words hung in the air, and Hermione held her breath. Then, "Out!" Snape made a sweeping gesture toward the portraits. "The lot of you. Now."
There was a general grumble of discontent, but one by one the portraits disappeared, leaving the room silent for once. He had once been headmaster. And he would be again.
Hermione stood awkwardly as Snape turned toward her.
"Oh, by the way." The face of Phineas Nigellus poked around the corner of his frame. "I just thought I should note that the incantation to return is inscribed in the back of the book. Desine Somnire. Just in case you wish to… test my theory." He hovered, trying to look unobtrusive.
"Phineas," Snape growled without taking his eyes off Hermione.
"All right, all right." He disappeared again.
Snape's expression was severe, searching, even as his voice was surprisingly soft. "You never said a word."
Hermione shrugged, tears burning in the back of her eyes. "I thought, what's the use? Everyone knows about," she swallowed, "Lily. You've always loved her. How could there ever be room for anyone else?"
She watched him flinch at the name, but then his eyes lost the bleak distance that had always held everyone at bay, and for a moment she saw fragile hope that made her heart clench. There was a pause.
"There… might be room." His voice was low and rough.
Barely daring to believe this was happening, she lifted her hand, tracing the outline of his face, waiting for him to pull away, to put her back in her place, to tell her that the spell could be wrong, after all. It couldn't be this easy, could it? Not after waiting so long? "Severus…" And then she was in his arms, being held and holding on with the desperate intensity of years of loneliness.
When she finally pulled away after their first, thoroughly enjoyable kiss – the nose was much easier to sort out than she had imagined – she smiled up at him, eyes dancing. "You never said a word."
He shrugged ruefully, pulling her back against himself. "I always thought, what's the use? What would someone like you ever see in someone like me?"
Hermione snuggled her head against his shoulder. "I'll be more than happy to tell you. For the rest of your life, if you want." She peered up at him through her eyelashes. "But you are still not getting the Pogrebins for your Defense class."
He laughed. She liked the sound.
"I think—," she could hear the smile in his voice, "—I can live with that."
"And Phineas Nigellus will have a fit."
Severus tilted her face up to kiss her again. "I think I can live with that, too."
Two weeks later, they were sitting on the divan in her quarters, Severus's arm around her shoulder, the book on their laps between them.
"Do you think we should give it back?" Hermione said wistfully. "I guess it really belongs to a Flint or a Black. But I've so enjoyed this…."
"Finders keepers," Severus interrupted her firmly.
Hermione didn't need much convincing. "So where should we go?" It had been lovely to go away with Severus, to spend uninterrupted time away from prying eyes. They'd had coffee on the Champs D'Elysees and toured the Louvre. They had ridden the Ferris wheel in Vienna, visited a Kabuki theater in Tokyo, and taken a stroll through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. They had even climbed the steps of Machu Picchu. Each chapter was the gateway to another city. You couldn't venture more than a couple of miles away from the materialization point before the spell wore off and you found yourself in grey nothingness. But that didn't matter. There was plenty to see before that.
"We could go back to Egypt." She positioned herself so she was leaning against him. "I'd love to stay and watch the sunrise. We could even ride a camel. Wouldn't that be fun?"
He gave her a look. "You will never get me on top of one of those tall, smelly, unstable contraptions. Never."
Hermione smiled to herself. "Oh, we'll see about that."
I did a piece of fanart that serves as an epilogue to the story - since ffnet doesn't allow links or graphics in the text, you can go here to see it if you are interested.
Tinyurl dot com/2a6u4ah
I'll also put a link on my profile page if that is easier, or if the link doesn't show up properly on here.
Thank you for reading my story, and I'd love it if you left a review!