Chapter Seven

Mischief Managed

"I wish that you had your love, Severus Snape, and that you were free to love and be loved in return."

There was a blazing flash of light followed by choking darkness, and the air became heavy with the scent of cinnamon and cloves.

Then . . . nothing.

No sight, no sound. Hermione found herself slumped against a cool, brass-like smoothness and realised her wish had come true.

The lamp had claimed her.

Surely that must mean that, somewhere, Severus was now free?

Then, just as suddenly, the crushing darkness was replaced with stark light from the fluorescent tube overhead and air whooshed back into her chest.

Hermione blinked. She had somehow ended up on the floor, her face pressed against the smooth glass door of the oven, her legs caught gracelessly beneath her. She raised her hand to her throat, still half expecting to find the heavy gold torc that would mark her as a slave. Her fingers met warm skin. Yet if she were alive . . .

The lamp was lying on its side on the kitchen floor, a few of the ugly brown panes of glass knocked free from their settings. Behind the lamp was a pair of scuffed black boots, half hidden beneath badly creased robes.

Hermione blinked again, but he was still there. Not the impressive genie of the lamp, but a hook-nosed, round-shouldered man with greasy hair and a look of complete disbelief on his face. Snape. Severus.

One of his scuffed boots slid forward and he nudged the lamp with his toe. It gave a tired wheeze and emitted a puff of green smoke before crumbling into dust.

"You broke it," he whispered. "You broke the enchantment." He looked up, his eyes meeting hers. Even without the magic of the lamp they were as dark as sin. "You saved me." He frowned. "How did you know that would happen?"

The truth was far too ridiculous to admit to, she knew. A lie would save them both from a thousand difficult questions and even harder answers. The truth could hurt them both.

She had gambled her freedom, on a dangerous wish, in exchange for his. The idea that they might both somehow win hadn't really occurred to her.

"I didn't," she confessed.

It was hard to tell in the stark, clean light of the kitchen, but he seemed to grow pale.

"But then why?" He sounded confused. "Why offer up your life in exchange for mine?" When she didn't answer, he crossed the distance between them, his boots crunching heavily over the powdery glass left behind, and caught her by the shoulders, pulling her roughly to her feet. "Why, Hermione?"

She splayed her fingers across his chest in an attempt at balance, as shocked by the warm feel of his body beneath the cloth and the firmness of his flesh beneath her fingertips as by his sudden wrath. His grip tightened on her arms and for a moment she thought that he was going to shake her.

Why? If he didn't know her reasons then . . . At a loss for an answer, Hermione simply leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.

His lips were soft and dry, his chin rough with a faint rasp of stubble. Hermione closed her eyes, revelling in the solid feel of him beneath her hands. Flesh, bone, and crumpled cloth, he was here and he was real. He even smelled real: a curious mix of potions class, magic, and the slightest hint of sweat that – for some unknown reason – caused the most delicious curl of anticipation to coil deep within her belly.

She was so caught up in the wonderful feel of him finally within her grasp, that it took her a moment to realise that he wasn't kissing her back. His hands rested lightly on her shoulders, neither pushing her away nor pulling her close.

She froze then pulled away.

"Hermione," he began gently. "Miss Granger—"

"No," She stopped him, "it's alright. You don't have to explain." Because what could he say that might make this any less humiliating? What had she been thinking? He was Severus Snape, for God's sake. His entire story hinged upon his unwavering devotion to Lily Evans. What had she possibly believed that the few short days they had spent together could have done to change that immutable fact?

Whatever relationship she had built in her head had simply stemmed from her need to help him. He might be Severus Snape, but she was still just Hermione Granger, the girl who threw herself into grand gestures in the hope other people would see them as the declarations they were and repay her with steadfast loyalty and love. The girl who ended up disappointed and alone.

She stepped back and Severus released her, his arms dropping to his sides.

"It's alright," she repeated thickly. "I'm just so very glad to see you free. I was caught up in the moment. Please don't—"

She was interrupted by a scuffle at the window and the sharp tap of a beak against the pane. A beautiful snowy owl was glaring impatiently through the glass. For a moment Hermione thought it might have been a missive from Harry, until she remembered with a pang why he now shared little Pig with Ginny instead. Whoever the bird belonged to, she couldn't have been more grateful for their timing.

The owl hissed at her as she reached for the note attached to its leg and leapt back into the air the moment the parchment was in her hand, not waiting for a reply. "Friendly," Hermione muttered, unrolling the note.

It was brief, a single line of elegant scrawl.

Lucius Malfoy shall be at home to callers this afternoon until three.

Not ten minutes before, such a summons would have intrigued her. Now, even though the nature of Malfoy's dealings with the lamp were still a complete mystery to her, Hermione could sense her involvement in the whole affair was drawing to a close. She had fulfilled the promise that she had made to herself and found a way to free Snape. She hadn't stopped to consider what role she might play in his new life and, apparently, neither had he.

She passed him the note. "Perhaps you ought to go," she suggested. "Find out what he was doing with the lamp."

"Maybe," he agreed. "Although I'm not quite sure what sort of reception I might find. Besides, Lucius might be a little alarmed to see me without some forewarning."

"Draco will be pleased to see you, I suspect," Hermione offered. "I had the feeling he was against getting rid of the lamp in the first place. I think he knew it was yours."

"Draco . . ." He nodded briskly. "It used to follow me around, too. He may have recognised it."

It was only then that Hermione realised that she had neglected to inform him that his godson was alive and well. It also occurred to her that Severus had not asked a single question about him or any other of his friends or acquaintances.

Thinking back, she hadn't even told him how Voldemort had died. He must have surmised that the Dark Lord had been defeated simply by the fact that Harry had the time to hang around the Ministry Atrium with his best friend on weekday mornings, but he had never questioned further, and she had never thought to provide him with answers. She hadn't even asked if she were the first person to summon him from his lamp, but had just assumed it to be the case.

As far as she knew, Snape wasn't even aware that his name had been cleared, or that he had been posthumously awarded an Order of Merlin. He didn't know that his colleagues had survived, that Hogwarts had been repaired and restored, or that teenage boys up and down the country were learning hair straightening charms from their sisters in order to mimic the trademark sweep of hair that brushed his shoulders and hid his eyes.

Surely those ought to have been the first things that she had told him? Yes, their meeting had been an unusual one, but that should not have prevented her from letting him know that the world he had died to save was now flourishing, all thanks to him.

She hadn't even thanked him. Not properly.

"Still," he continued, "perhaps I had best go."

"Yes," she agreed, her voice cheerful and over-bright. "There must be an awful lot for you to catch up on." A thought occurred to her. "Do you have a wand?" The implication that he might need one if he were to visit the Manor alone didn't seem to cause him the least offence.

"I have a spare wand at home," he answered before pausing. "Do you know if I still have a home?"

"Oh, yes!" She rushed to reassure him. "The Ministry declared Spinner's End to be a national monument. There was some talk of setting a museum there, but it was decided that it was too close to Muggle communities to play host to large numbers of witches and wizards. And there was an issue with some of the wards left behind." She could hear herself beginning to babble, and forced herself to stop. "Instead they had the whole street snapped up by English Heritage."

If he hadn't been Snape, she might have believed that he was flummoxed by the news. "Oh."

"Yes, they were a little surprised, too. But apparently traditional mill workers' cottages are becoming very rare and we're in danger of losing all links to our industrial past. They left everything exactly as it was while the Foundation of the Fallen decide how to proceed. I work in that department," she added.

"Then the Floo may still be connected," he mused. "Miss Granger, I know that I've already imposed upon your good nature enough, but might I use your Floo connection?"

"But of course," Hermione assured him, wondering if the conversation could become any more stilted or polite. Only last night she had slept beside him.

There didn't seem to be anything to say after that, thankfully. Hermione wasn't sure how much more of this cheerful, courteous small talk she could take. The awkwardness of her unwanted kiss was still filling the space between them, and his desire to leave was obvious.

She led the way back into the cosy front room and its neat little fireplace. Severus accepted a pinch of Floo Powder from the old tea tin on the mantelpiece, then paused and held out his free hand. "Miss Granger."

"Severus," she returned, accepting his handshake, wondering if this was really how everything was going to end. Her hand felt very small in his.

"Would you, perhaps, be willing to keep my . . . return . . . from public knowledge for a few days? Just until I find my feet?"

"Of course!" she agreed. "It's your freedom. Severus, I want you to use it however you wish. I won't breathe a word to anyone."

"Thank you," he said, and then he did something very strange. Lifting her hand to his lips he placed a careful kiss on her knuckles. "You are an extraordinary witch, Hermione Granger. It would take someone incredibly selfless to withstand the magic of the lamp."

Her first instinct was to argue with him – she had been so very selfish, after all – but she stilled herself and squeezed his fingers in return. "Thank you."

There was a pause when neither spoke, her hand still caught in his. Suddenly he seemed to remember himself and let her go, casting the powder into the grate.

"Well, goodbye then."

"Goodbye, Severus." She blinked, the bright light of the Floo causing her eyes to sting. "Be happy."

He spoke the words of his address and was gone.

Hermione scrubbed at her face with her hanky, determined that this time she would finally stop the awful, gulping sobs that had overtaken her the moment the glow of the Floo had died down.

Tired and headachy, she made her way into the bathroom to wash her face and search for a mild pain potion. The bathroom cupboard was empty, save for tooth floss and tampons, and Hermione closed the mirrored door with a sigh, catching sight of her reflection as she did.

She looked pathetic. Red rimmed eyes in a pale face, set in an expression of abject misery.

Hermione shook her head.

She would go and buy a vial of Headache Reliever, have an early night and somehow find the ability to carry on as if Severus Snape had never whirled into her sitting room in a plume of smoke. Her life had felt fairly complete before him. Besides, all this time spent with him had made her realise just how precious her time was. How much longer could she avoid her friends? There were bridges to be mended in her own life before she worried about what was happening to Snape.

Really, Hermione had always known that he was out of her reach. Even when his lips had been against hers, his heart had been somewhere else. She had been a fool to hope it might have been otherwise.

The streets were quieter now that Hogwarts was in session, and there was the first nip of approaching autumn in the air. Hermione gracelessly drank the potion in the apothecary, grimacing at the taste but grateful for the instant relief it provided. With the headache gone she found herself sinking into that tired, calm acceptance that sometimes follows heavy tears, when the emotions that caused so much pain seem to drift out of reach.

She walked aimlessly down the cobbled street, not quite ready to head home. Her feet carried her, of their own accord, towards the open doors of Flourish and Blotts. The smell of dust and binding glue worked their own special magic on her and Hermione felt herself begin to unwind.

The world hadn't ended. She was free, Snape was free. Really, all of her wishes had come true, given time. Mostly they had been rather selfish, but she supposed that was the nature of wishes. Her last wish, though, the one that had somehow granted his freedom, was as selfless as it was possible to be. I wish that you were free to love me, Severus Snape, and able to return my love in kind. That might have been what had been in her heart, but she would never have uttered the words aloud. Binding him to her in that way would have been far, far worse than the curse binding him to the lamp. This way, not only did he have the chance to find love on his own terms, but he had the chance to be loved in return. He would be loved; she knew it. He was too good, too brave, too dear not to find such a happiness.

She just wished it could have been with her.

The flat felt empty and cold when Hermione returned home, laden down with bags from the supermarket as well as her purchases from the bookshop. With a flick of her wand, she lit all the lights and the fire, too, even though it wasn't really late enough in the year to warrant it. Tonight she would have a guilty supper of pizza and ice cream in front of the television, followed by a long bath spent reading the novel she had bought herself as a treat. She would read it, allow herself to become a little weepy over the plot, then have an early night.

A noise from the corridor made her start. She rarely used the front door, finding the Floo far handier for work, and hadn't yet met many of her neighbours. Feeling a little annoyed at the sudden interruption to her quiet evening, she unlocked the door and peered out into the corridor.

". . . can't stay out here all night. I've a good mind to call the police." It was Mr Streatfield from across the hall, glaring distrustfully at the man dressed all in black leaning against her wall.

Severus had his arms folded across his chest, but Hermione had the sneaking suspicion that it wouldn't be long before he was reaching for his wand. He had the tired stance of a man who had been standing in the same position for many hours, and she wondered if he had ever got further than Spinner's End before returning.

"I will remain here until Miss Granger returns."

She wondered why he hadn't used the Floo, then remembered that she had never thought to include him in her wards. How long had he been waiting for her return? Waiting outside her door?

"I tell you—" Mr Streatfield began, drawing himself to his full height, still inches shorter than the man he addressed.

Hermione cleared her throat and both men looked up.

"This man says he's here to visit you," Mr Streatfield informed her. Hermione nodded, not quite trusting herself to speak. Her neighbour frowned, then shrugged, returning to his own flat, muttering as he went about people not answering their doors and the sort of people allowed to own property these days.

Both Hermione and Severus watched him go, then turned to one another.

"You're here." It was such a terribly inane thing to say, but it was all that was filling her mind. He's here, he's here, he came back . . . She watched as he came closer, something painfully like hope beginning to fill her chest.

He stopped just in front of her. She half expected him to admonish her for stating the obvious, but he simply reached towards her. It felt so natural to slide her arms around his narrow waist and press her face against his chest.

"I fear I'll always be here," her murmured into her hair. "If you'll have me?"

Letting him go, Hermione stood back so that he might enter the flat. "I wished for it, didn't I?"

The subtle gift, a lover's kiss,

With careful magic caught inside,

Locked away from Death's dark gaze

A moment caught in time.

Hidden safe in lover's arms

Bound with ancient art.

For two threads, twined in fate

Not all the stars can part.

Final Author's Note:

A few of you have commented on the originality of the premise. Original story ideas are like gold dust, especially with this pairing, but sadly I can't take the credit. This story was created in answer to a prompt at the 2012 SSHG Exchange on LiveJournal. Even sadder, the original prompter was unable to complete the exchange, so I never got to find out if she liked the story. It's been a real pleasure to be able to share it with yourselves instead, and I've appreciated every supportive review throughout. Thank you all so very much!

Special thanks are reserved for heartmom88, who is the only reason any of my stories are readable, and to sixpence jones, who held my hand throughout and made the whole process so much fun.