Hermione's hand trembled as she reached for her wand. Her Lumos spell banished the dark and bathed the room in a light which shone out a welcome return to the present. Everything was reassuringly in its place. The lingering sense of Regulus Black's oppressive bedroom withered under the presence of familiar objects and surroundings. Crookshanks still lay by the hearth, snoring gently on the peacock blue rug, oblivious to the fact that the world of his mistress had just been irredeemably turned upside down.
Once again, Hermione knew what it was to feel the effects of waking from a dream, only this time the details did not trickle away like sand through fingers. The evening she had passed with Professor Snape at Grimmauld Place was now as real to her as any other memory – confined to its rightful place in a corner of her mind marked "depository". Yet this memory was like no other; this memory was both a traumatic awakening and an answer to an unformed question – a page torn from a book – found, returned and devoured. Now the story made sense, now the actions of the heroine were finally fathomable. There was a very good reason why she had spent the months leading up to the final battle ready to visit violence upon anyone who spoke disparagingly of Severus Snape. The relief was profound, but the weight of what had passed between them even more so. She had spent several remarkable hours with him, in which time she had played the part of bitter enemy, captive, confidante, sympathiser and participant in a very dubious spell.
The details of the spell were the only part of the memory which were unclear to her. She tried to focus fully on the final few minutes, but all she could recall was the two of them lying on the bed together and her own quivering willingness to complete the spell. She recalled quite clearly his instruction for her to face the wall; she could even relive the warmth of his breath and his surprisingly gentle touch, but as for the rest, it was either lost or … She had to conclude that he had not returned the entire memory, either as a result of error or intention on his part. Perhaps he simply could not face her knowing the sordid details.
No wonder he had been so eager to leave her alone to experience her memory once he returned it. She doubted very much if she would ever be able to face him again. It was fortunate, then, that the chances of an unlucky encounter were practically nil. His Auror work with Harry and Ron rarely brought him into the office, and Hermione had never seen him at the Ministry, certainly not in the five years since she had been there.
By the time Harry arrived to check up on her three days later, Hermione was done with her languishing. Two days of brooding and analysing had barely helped her to come to terms with the disturbing revelation that she had initiated, and possibly performed, a piece of very dark magic with Severus Snape. And though she had not managed to resolve anything more than a fervent wish to avoid him, Hermione knew that she had spent enough time reliving the experience, and it was with relief that she opened her front door to find a concerned-looking Harry carrying a brown package which was revealed to contain a homemade fruit loaf, still warm from the oven.
She poured tea from a fat brown pot and promised herself respite from crudely constructed images of Professor Snape, herself and a dusty old bed in Grimmauld Place. Whatever the reality consisted of, her mind had exaggerated it tenfold – perhaps he should have thought of that when he denied her access.
'You haven't been in work for two days.' Harry pulled the teacup towards him and took a small sip, peering at her through his black-rimmed glasses as he did so.
'I had a cold.'
'If you're worried about Ron …'
'I said, I had a cold.'
Harry sighed. 'Because we've heard from him, so…'
Hermione set her own cup down with a clatter that spilled half of its contents into the saucer. 'You heard? Is he alright? Where is he?'
'He sent a Patronus to the office this morning. He's fine. I can't say any more, you know that.'
Well used to Auror missions, secrecy and espionage, Hermione nodded begrudgingly. 'He's okay though? Is that all he said?
Harry nodded and glanced at Hermione before staring into his cup and continuing. 'I should've gone with him.'
''You can't go on every assignment together, Harry. You're not joined at the hip. And you do have a family to think about now… well, almost.' Hermione topped her cup from the pot. 'And at least he's with Dawlish. He is with Dawlish isn't he?'
'Yes. And Williamson.'
'Well then, he'll be fine.' Hermione's weak smile was not as reassuring as her sentiment. 'Molly's invited me round for dinner tonight. Are you and Ginny going?'
'Ginny is. I can't make it.' Harry took the offered knife and cut two thick slices of fruit loaf, passing one to Hermione and spreading his own with a generous helping of butter.
Hermione nodded. 'Good. That means Molly can fuss over her unborn grandson instead of worrying about Ron. How is Ginny?'
'She's really well. But she's having weird cravings for curry and bacon sandwiches.'
Harry grinned and nodded. 'Disgusting isn't it?'
She wrinkled her nose in agreement. 'So why aren't you going to Molly's?'
'I have a meeting with Severus.'
'Oh.' Hermione hoped her feigned nonchalance was more successful than it sounded to her own ears. 'The Avery case, I suppose?'
'Mmmm. We would be clueless about where to even start looking for him if it wasn't for Severus's inside information. He's been brilliant.'
Hermione wasn't sure why it was that Harry's post-war reverence towards the man he used to despise irritated her so deeply. Since the truth of Snape's loyalties and motivations were revealed, his place in Harry's mind had turned from reviled enemy to trusted ally. Hermione had seen this kind of behaviour before from Harry: Sirius had incited the same sudden shift of attitude when he had been exposed as an innocent man. The difference being, that Sirius had welcomed Harry's hero-worshipping, Snape did not. Hermione very much doubted if he relished being on first name terms with the boy he had lived to protect for the best part of seven years.
She listened as Harry rambled enthusiastically about Snape's invaluable input on the rogue Death Eater case and wondered if there would ever be a time when she could manage to meet her former professor's eye without blushing.
'I have some more good news,' said Harry. 'He's agreed to come and work with us. Properly, I mean – officially.'
'Severus, of course. Who else have I been talking about for the last ten minutes?'
Hermione had noticed that lately there was something uncannily Snape-like about Harry's behaviour; his sense of humour had a distinctly sarcastic edge to it these days. He had even taken to sneering on the odd occasion, and as he answered her obtuse questions, she couldn't help wondering if he was actually attempting an acerbic drawl. On this occasion, however, her impatience made way for alarm.
'He's becoming an Auror!' Hermione managed to fill her saucer with tea slop for the second time in five minutes.
'Officially, yes. He's practically been an Auror anyway for as long as me and Ron have. The only difference now is that he'll be coming to work at the Ministry, instead of us having to set up covert meetings in the back of beyond.'
'What about the training?'
'He's been in training all his life. An Auror needs to be good at defence, potions, have knowledge of the dark arts, an aptitude for espionage and stealth. He also needs to have a sound academic background. Come on, Hermione, can you think of anyone better?'
Hermione shrugged her reply and wondered why she was experiencing the same conflicting sensation of fear and thrilling anticipation as she had on the day she received her Hogwarts acceptance letter. Her horror then had been for the revelation that magic existed, and her thrill for the possibilities before her. A different kind of conflict consumed her now. The chances of them meeting by chance were now a distinct possibility, if not an inevitability. Harry noticed her face pale at the news.
'You don't look too happy about it,' he said.
'Ron won't be thrilled when he finds out,' she said deflecting his accusatory stance away from herself. 'He never really managed to get over his dislike of Snape like you did. To him, it didn't matter that he turned out to be on our side; he didn't like him before and he doesn't like him now.'
Harry looked a little uncomfortable, but maintained his enthusiasm nevertheless. 'He'll get used to it. And even Ron has to admit that if anyone has what it takes to make a bloody good Auror, Severus does.'
'Ron won't see it like that.'
'What about you?'
'What about me? It doesn't matter what I think; it doesn't affect me.'
'I know that, but I wondered how you felt about it anyway. You never comment whenever his name comes up; in fact, most of the time you change the subject if you can.'
Hermione wondered when Harry had become so insightful; he never used to have a clue about what was going on in other people's heads. Maybe it was his Auror training or the fact that he no longer had to worry about being on the tail end of the Killing Curse. Perhaps being free from Dark Lord mal intent allowed a person the freedom to care. Whatever the reason for Harry's perceptiveness, Hermione did not welcome it; she was not ready to share all she knew and felt about Snape just yet. She barely understood it herself. She shifted uncomfortably in her chair as she broke off a piece of Ginny's fruit loaf.
'I never really disliked him as much as you and Ron did,' she said.
'That's not what I asked.'
'What can I say? He turned out to be the best of us. He didn't deserve our hatred, but he doesn't want to be idolised either. He's complicated. I don't really know how I feel, but I don't think I would ever feel comfortable around him. I won't be seeking him out for a catch up.'
'His bark is worse than his bite. He takes a bit of getting used to, but he's alright really. I mean, he's never going to be easy going. But no one could call him unfeeling. I mean, look how long it took him to get over my mum.'
'Over her? I didn't think he was over her. What makes you think that?'
'Well, I suppose she'll always have a special place in his heart, but he's been with Jessica for six years now, so I suppose you could say he's moved on.'
'Jessica? Who the hell is Jessica? You've never mentioned a Jessica before.'
'Haven't I?' He shrugged dismissively. 'Well, why would I? He doesn't mention her much, and I'm hardly likely to pry am I? Sometimes he says we can meet at Spinner's End when there's a need to, and sometimes we have to arrange somewhere else because "Jessica's home".'
'Well, how is that an indication that he's moved on?' Hermione demanded in a voice more strident than she intended.
'You sound as if you want him to still be a brooding mess. Isn't it a good thing? I'm sure my mum wouldn't want to think of him ruining his life over her memory. And it shows he's moved on because he's obviously living with her.'
'Why? Why is it obvious? She could be his sister, or his housekeeper, or his research assistant, or his… great aunt. What makes you assume they are a couple?' Hermione's heart was racing with indignation, both for Harry's revelation and her disturbing reaction to it.
Harry stared at her strangely following her outburst. 'I dunno. Maybe something about the way he says her name.'
'And you never thought to ask?'
'Hermione, he's still Snape! He doesn't invite chit-chat or an intrusion into his private life. He's still got that way of looking at you as if you're something the cat brought in. What do you want me to do, invite him and his girlfriend round for dinner? I'd like to see Gin's face.'
Hermione shuddered at Harry's flippant use of the word, "girlfriend". Snape didn't have girlfriends; he sat at home reading clever books and bemoaning the loss of his childhood friend. He brewed potions and scowled. He devoted whatever spare time he had to catching dark wizards and regretting the past. He returned home each evening to an empty house with an aching heart, not to an affectionate woman who filled the chasm left by Lily.
Not that Hermione cared either way.
'Well, I still think you're jumping to conclusions as you know nothing about her but her name and that she is at Spinner's End… sometimes.'
'Why do you care?' asked Harry, giving her another suspicious look.
Hermione affected a blasé laugh. 'I don't. I'm just warning you against assuming. You don't want to let something like that slip once he starts coming into the office. You know what it's like when people talk and gossip gets out of hand. If you mention it to someone at work and it gets around that Snape is living with a woman and it turns out not to be true… well, imagine his reaction.'
'Hermione, you seriously think I haven't got better things to do at work than gossip about Severus's supposed love life? I hadn't even given it a second thought until you started grilling me about it. Why on earth are you so interested? And it's a strange coincidence that you are acting weirdly over him at the same time that he suddenly shows an interest in you. What's going on?'
'An interest in me? What do you mean?'
'I saw him earlier today to tell him about Ron's Patronus message this morning. I happened to say that you'd be glad to know he was okay, but that you were off sick. He seemed… well… I suppose I'd call it concerned. He was trying to be his usual sarcastic self, but I know him better now. He said, "As one of the golden trio is indisposed and who-knows-where, I'd have thought you would show a bit more concern when the other one is absent from work". I told him that you'd only been off for a couple of days and that you could take care of yourself, and he said, "Well, as long as you can live the all-consuming guilt if it turns out that she suffered alone." – I asked him why he was so concerned about you, and he said that he wasn't, he just thought I should be.'
Somehow, it didn't matter to Hermione that it wasn't Harry's idea to see that she wasn't lying unconscious on her kitchen floor or unable to get out of bed. Snape had asked after her; he had shown concern. Whether it was from a perspective of self-interest or a genuine trepidation over her response to the Finite Obliviate was unclear, but at least he wasn't indifferent. Was he worried that she would respond by turning up at his home and demanding an explanation?
Or did he genuinely care?