CHAPTER NINETEEN — Valentine's Day

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Severus took his seat at the Head Table for breakfast on Valentine's Day, already antsy. Miniscule pink scrolls of parchment and traditional cards had been slipped, shoved and stuffed under his office door—all of them were quickly stomped upon. Red paper hearts fluttered after him in the corridors—all sliced in half to lay twitching on the floor. None of these garish tokens of affection had made it to the Great Hall. He entered, keeping his eyes glued to his seat, ignoring any student who looked his way.

Each year at least one student left a valentine for each professor (and sometimes Filch or even a handmade cat toy for Mrs Norris) but this year, lace-edged, sparkly valentines had been left over every inch of the Head Table, even on top of empty plates, the brunt of them concentrated between Minerva's seat, his and Fleur's.

The Potions Master Banished the offensive bits of paper from his section of table and sat down. At his side, Aurora stacked them into a neat pile, her lips set in a slight sneer.

"Utter chaos," he scoffed, brushing some of Minerva's confetti off his arm.

Minerva held up one of her cards. It was a Muggle card in the shape of the tabby cat. "You're purr-fect," she read, cracking up.

Severus knew his stint as a child had addled his brain—he snorted as well, grinning and almost laughing at the cheeky, feline sentiment. Aurora outright laughed. The two women found the funny cards from their piles, reading them as they ate kippers or toast.

Eventually the post came, owls swishing through the rafters, dipping towards their intended targets.

Grey Daily Prophets rained from above, Severus' included. He unfurled his paper, Minerva and Aurora doing the same on either side.

"Oh dear," Minerva murmured. "'Mione is going to be quite surprised to find herself on the front page."

"Granger Will Be Nominated for Putney Minister" and a subsequent photo took up three-quarters of the page, the story continuing on 3A, 17 and 18. 'Mione's photograph must have been taken at last week's caucus meeting; she remained demure in her fancy robes, Potter and Weasley flanking her while she shook hands with the minister.

Severus looked up in time to see the real Hermione choke on her gulp of water. Miss Lovegood, Longbottom and Miss Weasley each waved a Prophet in her face, exclaiming happily. Hermione was a mix of pleased and overwhelmed. Her smile grew more embarrassed as the news traveled down the Gryffindor table in a wave.

"Our students grow up too fast these days," Dumbledore said, shaking his head as he turned to page three.

LINE

Hermione thought, This cannot be happening.

Processing the news about her nomination would be difficult, even without her friends shrieking about it. The whole table knew within a matter of minutes. Other students looked either impressed, indifferent or sour. The teachers even discussed it amongst themselves, a newspaper open in front of their faces or shared with the person next to them.

This cannot be happening! she thought, smiling at Ginny's exuberance without really hearing what she was saying. I might be a minister! As soon as someone in the Wizengamot declared a new election, her name would be put on the ballot. She used her fingers to untangle some knots in her hair, wondering at the voting process.

She simultaneously wanted to analyze her upcoming nomination with someone and wanted everyone to stop psyching her out. She figured she would pick Sev's brain about it, but he was on his way towards the Entrance Hall with Aurora Sinistra.

The two young professors felt they were close to a breakthrough. Fleur and Bill had contributed all their expertise and Flitwick had performed a number of unhelpful charms over the past few weeks. Hermione and Luna had done some research in the library, adding pages of notes that would no doubt become footnotes in Sev's dissertation about the whole debacle.

Professor Sprout was ready to donate any herbs needed for an age-reversal potion but Neville had the sense she was "losing hope" in a remedy.

Hermione resolved to wait until Severus wasn't busy with Professor Sinistra. Not that she was jealously guarding her time with Severus, that would be silly.

Ginny had a stack of envelopes in her hand, delivered from Harry's new owl. "One for everyone," she explained. "This one is for Professor Snape," Ginny said to Hermione. "Harry didn't think he'd even read it, if he sent it by owl. Can you give it to him?"

"Yeah," she said with a nod.

LINE

Severus unrolled his notes and pinned them flat on the table crammed into the corner of his office. Aurora stood at his side, holding a few of her own scrolls.

"We must be close to a solution," Aurora said. "Simply must be."

The Potions Master scratched the back of his neck. "I can't think of anything left to try."

"We're not giving up!" She gripped the edge of the table.

"I didn't say that," Severus grumbled. He crossed his arms and stared at the mix of his messy handwriting, Hermione's neat notes and Filius's large font. Five rolls of parchment held all the information they had been able to find, about age magic, glamours, memory tampering. It held everything but answers.

The witch covered her mouth. "You're not thinking of taking this to the ministry are you?"

"Certainly not."

A few more paper hearts, these ones black and green, wriggled under the door and zoomed towards their ankles. Severus zapped them.

Aurora chuckled. "You don't even read them?"

"Why should I?" He shook the cinders from his shoe.

"One might be from a girl you like," Aurora suggested, her innocent tone implying something Severus didn't want to think about. Aurora rolled her parchment into a tight tube.

"They're from students."

"Mmm." Aurora studied the notes. "I've got something for you." She held out a stack of papers.

Severus didn't take them. "What are they?"

"Charts for you to look over."

"Those things are always changing. I don't like them and it would be better for someone else to check them for you." He tapped his finger on his chin, eyes speeding over Filius's suggestions.

"They're about you."

His eyes stopped moving.

"You and Hermione."

"Get out."

"The stars—"

"Bugger the stars," he murmured.

"The stars know you and Hermione and superb together," Aurora pressed on.

"Leave," he said a bit louder, turning to the bookcase.

She followed him around the office. "And we've all seen you two with our own eyes."

"You've all been discussing it thoroughly, have you?" he snapped.

"It's hard not to comment on a happy Severus Snape," she said, exasperated. "And it's Hermione that does it—"

"I don't want to hear your sordid gossip."

Aurora turned a little red in the face. "Why are you so angrily denying it?"

"I don't believe you!" His eyes—black, forged from twenty years of lying, torture, and torturing—glared at the young woman.

Aurora stepped back, almost afraid. "I know you, Severus—you won't believe what anyone says."

"Go away."

"Now you have scientific proof along with what you already feel—"

"Scientific," he scoffed under his breath.

"–You are the only barrier between you and Hermione and happiness," she finished.

"She makes me happy now," he growled, still not looking at his colleague.

"She'll make you happy in the future—"

"You can't tell the future!" Severus whirled around, his fists shaking at his sides. "And when you do, it all ends up a bloody mess! Nothing ever ends up like it should—like we want it to! Especially if I want it to! So leave me alone about it!"

"If you would let yourself be happy for once in your bloody life, Severus, it might just work out for you!"

"Not bloody likely!"

She yelled, "What are you afraid of?"

"She'll leave me!" The two had reached screaming pitches. Severus stepped back until he bumped into the desk, putting distance between them.

Aurora gave a weak chuckle. "That's called a relationship." She shook her head and laid the charts on his cluttered desk. "Do what you want, you daft man."

Severus watched her open the door and shut it gently behind her. He slapped the scrolls off his desk. He sat on the edge and put his face in his hands. Aurora could be right, his mind whispered. But she could be wrong. He snorted. "Stars."

Stars, light years away, clearly are the arbiters of fate here on Earth.

He glared at Aurora's scrolls. He knew she wasn't mocking him, she was sincere. She was also, for the moment, sixteen and optimistic. He was twenty-something, for the moment, and in love with Hermione Granger, his friend. Any day he would turn back into his thirty-nine-year-old self and still be, painfully, in love with Hermione Granger, his student.

"You bloody idiot." He gripped his hair between his fingers. "Bloody idiot."

Hermione couldn't love him. Those stars don't know love. Don't know life. He shoved himself upright. A dozen Valentines and chocolates trickled from the gap under the door. He stomped over Aurora's charts to pick up the stack of schoolgirl natterings. He stomped on the scroll again on the way to the fireplace. He tossed the Valentines into the flames.

He watched them burn, annoyed by the bitter chocolate aroma staining the air. He turned to pick up the star charts. Someone knocked on the door.

Severus threw them on the table instead of the fire.

"Afternoon," Hermione said when he opened the door. She peered around his arm. "Not working on the counter-jinx anymore?"

He shook his head. She held out a navy envelope.

"What is this?" A Valentine?

"An invitation to Ginny's birthday party at the end of the month. Harry thought it would be better for me to deliver it instead of an owl, on today of all days," she chuckled.

He took it. Reluctantly. She followed him into the office.

"I'm not saying you have to go," she began with a bit of a trill, "but I would like you to."

"I feel it is not appropriate. I've never attended events like this for past students."

"You could always turn over a new leaf." She peered over the research parchments pinned to the extra table. She glanced at the papers Aurora had left; Severus felt his pulse accelerate, but she ignored them. "You don't have to go." Her index finger traced one of the dark tree ring patterns on the wood.

Severus slit open the envelope.

You are cordially invited to the Three Broomsticks on the evening of February 27 to celebrate Ginevra Weasley's 17th birthday.

The headache the officious party would bring was already starting, he could feel it, right behind his eyes. He sighed through his nose. "You want me to go to the party?"

She swung her hair over her shoulder as she looked back at him. With a broad smile, she said, "Of course. You can't stay here all day every day—you need a party every once in a while."

He sat behind his desk. Yes, Professor Dungeon Bat should have weekly outings, he's clearly a social butterfly. "Alright," he said. He looked past Hermione's smile to Aurora's charts. He vowed not to read them.