When Hermione came to, she was sitting in the middle of a forest once more. Her hands grasped at the earth; they were covered in mud. She felt for her wand and sighed in relief when she found it still strapped to her forearm.
It was only then that she realized it wasn't entirely dark. She looked up to see a fire pit and, in the flickering light and shadow, a female figure moving toward her. Another Veela. The woman was very tall with skin so pale it was almost blue. She was even more majestic than the one Hermione had encountered at the coffin—she moved slowly, deliberately, and it seemed as if the wind moved with her. Her hair floated in the air, strands of silver and blue shining in the firelight. She was both the most beautiful and the most terrifying Veela Hermione had ever laid eyes on, in her admittedly limited experience.
"You're a hard one to forcibly Apparate, Mademoiselle Granger," the Veela said, extending a hand to Hermione to help her stand. She whispered a charm that cleaned Hermione from head to toe.
"Merci," Hermione said, wiping her trousers. "I take it you're the Master Keeper?"
"Celeste," the older woman extended her hand. Up close, Hermione could see—not wrinkles, as Veela rarely showed human signs of aging—that she looked older. Wiser. As if she'd been here a while. Hermione followed Celeste as she walked back toward the fire pit, and it was then that Hermione saw the apple and Veela hair on a wooden slab next to a stunning cauldron. It was almost transparent, but it had a density and a spectacular sheen that were out of place in the dark forest.
"That's not glass, is it?" she asked, folding her arms over her chest to fight the chill. I'm not in the Mediterranean anymore.
Celeste laughed as she waved her wand over the cauldron, setting the water to a boil. "Of all the questions I have ever been asked, that is perhaps the most original. And it's not glass—it's diamond."
Hermione's eyes widened. "Oh, my Circe. That is—"
"Are you ready?" Celeste asked.
"Yes, of course," Hermione said, a bit embarrassed. She could hardly take her eyes off the cauldron. I wonder if Snape has ever seen one …
"What order do I add them in?" Hermione asked.
Celeste nodded approvingly. "Bon." She walked over to Hermione, grasped the hand marked by the rose, and drew her wand from her sleeve in one elegant motion. "The last ingredient of the antidote." Before Hermione could react, Celeste had sliced her wand across Hermione's palm, leaving a shallow cut. Blood immediately began to pool.
"Let the blood drip," Celeste instructed. Hermione watched as it slowly flowed down her palm, off her hand, and into the clear water in the diamond cauldron. The blood immediately swirled in the water, creating a rather gruesome pattern.
Celeste murmured a charm and Hermione felt her palm heal. She looked down at it and found that the rose was gone.
"The hair," Celeste instructed. "Now."
Hermione added the hair.
"Stir three times counter-clockwise."
Hermione did as she was told.
"And last but certainly not least, la pomme."
Hermione dropped the apple into the cauldron and watched as the liquid suddenly swirled in streaks of red, black, and white. She looked up at Celeste. "That's it?"
"Gathering the ingredients is the hardest part. That's my job," Celeste said, twisting her wand in elegant figures. She drew the liquid out of the cauldron, and it arced in the air before spiraling into the vial she held in her other hand. She sealed it with a cork. "All yours." She smiled. "Well done."
"I didn't do much," Hermione said.
"Severus is lucky to have you," Celeste said. "And do tell Fleur hello for me."
"You know Fleur?" Hermione asked, feeling rather silly.
"Of course. She's my great-granddaughter." Celeste smiled for the first time, a full smile. "The women in our family are the Master Keepers. You look surprised. Trust me when I tell you that a typical four-year-old with only one-eighth Veela blood would not be able to speak an essence into existence. And now, you must return. Time is of the essence, as it were."
"How am I getting back?" Hermione asked. "The mark is gone."
"Your blood is in the vial, and the vial can be forcibly Apparated. And you with it," Celeste said.
Hermione shook her head. "I still don't entirely understand why my blood is necessary. Blood magic is usually only used when there is a link between the individuals involved, but Fleur said that the Quester just had to be of Muggle origin. I don't understand why blood is a necessary part of the process," she repeated with a sigh. "Not that anything has been logical tonight."
Celeste folded her hands. "A clever girl, my Fleur. I would send you back now, but—I imagine you deserve at least one answer after all you've done tonight."
Hermione didn't say anything. She was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Celeste sat down on a wooden bench and invited Hermione to sit next to her. "Just as the essence chooses the body it inhabits," she began, "so too does it choose the Quester, the person who will gather ingredients for the antidote. The Quester is typically a relative, sometimes a friend, and may not have been present for the incident. However, sometimes luck is on our side, and there is a—deeper, more intense connection available. Clearly, Fleur sensed that. After all, you only had to find three ingredients."
Hermione crinkled her brow. "Versus …?"
"If the Quester does not have that intense a level of connection to the person embodying the essence, it takes five ingredients. You will also note that you only collected two ingredients; your blood sufficed as the third."
"Why?" Hermione asked.
"I think you know the answer to that question," Celeste said, her voice soft.
Hermione shook her head. "That's nonsense. We work together, and he's infuriating. There is no deeper connection between us. I care about him, of course, but to imply that there's anything else going on is—" Her breath caught as she remembered standing in the doorway just before …
"Unreasonable?" Celeste smiled.
"Besides, how on earth could Fleur sense that?" Hermione felt herself flushing again.
"I know that it does not make sense to you, but for your own sake, don't fight this. Accept it. Accept him." Celeste paused. "And now, you really must be going."
"But—" Hermione interjected.
"Give my best to Severus." And with a wink, Celeste waved her wand, and Hermione felt the pressure of forced Apparition.
This time, she accepted it.
Hermione expected to land on the shore of France in order to catch a Portkey, but instead, she found herself on the lawn just outside the Burrow. She was rather impressed that Celeste had Apparated her across the Channel, and she squinted as she realized dawn was breaking.
And Severus was still inside the house.
Time is of the essence.
Hermione ran to the Burrow and barged in through the back door. She didn't hear any movement and she rushed through to the sitting room where Bill was sitting, asleep in an armchair across the room from Snape.
Some watch dog, Hermione thought, shaking her head. She stared at Severus, sleeping so peacefully on the sofa where she'd left him. She approached him quietly on tip-toe before kneeling down on the ground next to him. She couldn't help but admire him—he looked so peaceful and yet dignified, hands resting on his stomach. The lines of his body were long and lean; he didn't look like he'd lost strength. The lines on his face were smooth. His hair was still oily, though.
It was only then, in the calm after the fury of activity, that the first wave of exhaustion hit Hermione. She fought it. Not now, she thought as she pulled the antidote from her pocket. She'd made it this far. What was another hour or so?
"We're going to have a serious talk when you wake up," she muttered to Snape. She carefully pulled the cork out, and there was a soft pop as it dislodged from the glass vial. She tilted Snape's chin up, not quite ignoring the raspy stubble on his chin and how good it felt, and she tipped a good amount of the antidote into his mouth, adjusting his neck to try and ease it down his throat. Then, without realizing it, she dabbed a little of the antidote on her fingers and traced them along his lips.
She waited a moment for the antidote to kick in.
"Severus," she said gently. "Wake up." Nothing. She pushed on his chest a little. "Wake up." He was breathing; she felt the rise and fall of his chest, the gentle pulse as he exhaled. "Wake up," she said, feeling the hysteria rise. "Please," she whispered. She felt hot tears fill her eyes.
I did something wrong.
She checked the vial, but she had used all of the antidote. What's wrong? "Severus, please." Nothing. She laid her head on his chest and took one of his hands in hers. The tears kept coming. She didn't fight them.
It was only then that she realized that someone was stroking her hair—
She looked up, eyes tearful and puffy, to find Snape grinning down at her.
"So you do care," he said.
She slapped his chest before she could think. "You were awake? How dare you—"
"And miss the feel of your fingers on my lips? I couldn't possibly ruin the moment," he said.
She pushed herself off of him. "I can't believe—"
"No, Hermione." He reached for her and grasped her hand. "I didn't know you cared." He swallowed hard.
He was being honest. She knew he was. And in that moment, she felt utter relief. Her shoulders sagged, and she managed to grin. "Well just this once, I'll forgive you for being mean," she said.
"You call that mean? After everything we've been through?"
She sniffled. "I'm sorry."
"For crying? And, given the aftertaste of antidote, I take it you saved me, as well. You shouldn't be sorry for either thing," he murmured. "Thank you." He sat up and tugged on her hand gently. "Come here."
"You mean, sit on your lap?"
"Do I have to spell everything out for you, Granger?" he asked. She shook her head and climbed up onto his lap, resting her head on his shoulder as he stroked her back. "I had the strangest dreams while you were gone," he said. "There were dwarves. Do you fancy explaining what happened to me?"
When Bill woke up an hour later, he found himself witnessing something he never thought he'd see—Hermione Granger, cosily slumbering on Severus Snape's lap.
He grinned and rose from the chair, debating who to wake up first, Charlie and Ginny (to tell them he'd won the bet) or his wife (to tell her that all was well).
His wife won out.
He walked up the stairs, trying not to wake his mum and dad who were sleeping just above, and he slipped into his family's room. He leaned over Victoire's small bed to check on her and then crawled into bed next to his wife. He kissed her cheek, murmuring that Snape was himself again and that the essence had been saved.
"Bon," Fleur whispered. "Go to sleep, Bill."
He pulled the covers up and curled next to her, still smiling. He wasn't going to mention the other part.
"Hermione, wake up."
"What?" Hermione opened her eyes, and whatever was shaking her stopped. She looked up into Severus's eyes and bolted upright, smacking him square in the jaw with her forehead.
"Merlin, woman. That's a genuine weapon," Snape said, rubbing his jaw.
"Sorry," she whispered. "You startled me."
"Did you forget where you fell asleep?" he asked, eyes downcast.
She put her hand over his. "No! No." She tilted his chin up and looked into his eyes. "I'm glad to be here." It was then that she noticed the empty chair. "Oh, goodness. Bill's gone. He must have seen …"
"Us sleeping together?" Severus chuckled. "We were sleeping. Not mid-coitus. Breathe, Granger, that's it."
She nodded slowly. "But it's … I'm … Do you think that we can still work together?"
"Of course." He leaned on the sofa and rested his head in his palm. "So … penny for your thoughts."
"Mm." Hermione rested her head against the sofa, mirroring Snape.
"If I'm Snow White, does that make you Prince Charming?" He winked.
She laughed and clasped her hand across her mouth. She let her hand down, still chuckling. "I hope not. I'd make a terrible Prince Charming. Awful pressure to put on someone."
"A good perspective," Severus said, tracing his fingers along her palm.
"Severus?" she asked. He looked up at her. "The Veela seemed to know you. And the Master Keeper said to give you her best … do you know them?"
"Ah." He paused. "Voldemort was interested in possessing the tales—perverting them. This was during the second war," he said, his words careful and measured. "He wanted every tool available for his disposal. I was able to track the Veela … I found them. I spoke with one of them and told her to alter their movements, to add extra protection to the sights, or even to move the relics, if need be. I didn't need Dumbledore's orders to protect the essences. My guess is, Dumbledore would have wanted the tales, too."
"You saved them," Hermione said, feeling pride rise within her.
He shrugged. "My mother … she read me the tales, when I was young. It's not the proper thing a young boy should love, but—" he gave a rueful smile "—I did. I didn't want either of my masters getting their hands on them."
"That's very admirable," Hermione said.
"Celeste came to visit me after the war was over. That was, what, thirteen years ago now? Thirteen years." He raked a hand through his hair. "Would that I could remember this encounter."
"I remember," Hermione said, looking into his eyes.
"That is enough," he said. He rose from the couch and offered her his hand. "Would you like to leave? Before everyone gets up, that is."
"And go where?" she asked, her heart starting to thump.
"To get some breakfast," he said.
She smiled. "I'd love to."
Hermione penned a quick note for the Weasleys while Severus sent an owl to Minerva. "Where are we going for breakfast?" she asked him as they walked out of the back door onto the Burrow's lawn. She took his arm as they walked down the backstairs.
"I make a mean poached egg," Severus said.
"As only a Potions Master could," Hermione said, smiling up at him.
"Indeed. Oh, and Hermione?" he asked before they reached the Apparition point.
"Those abnormalities on the influence grid? The overly influential sights that you were concerned about?"
"Yes …?" Hermione asked, and then she knew what he was going to say before he said it.
"The fairy tales."
She nodded and felt rather ridiculous.
"I was right," he added.
She smacked his arm. "Fine. I'll pull the project."
"Fine-tune it and you'll make it work. I'll show you how it's done over breakfast."
She sighed. "Same old Severus. You can take the man out of the fairy tale, but …"
He pulled her in close, nose-to-nose, and wrapped his arms around her. "You were saying?" he whispered.
"Kiss me," she said, stroking her hands up his back.
And standing there in the middle of the Burrow lawn, under the morning sun, trainers soaked with morning dew, he obliged her.