Crookshanks and Duster made their weary way back to Hogwarts in the wee hours of the morning. A thorough search of the Forest had failed to turn up any trace of their pets. The Sidhe were obviously not involved in the disappearance; Crookshanks had seen them hot on the trail of a pair of deer. They’d been far too interested in their hunt to spare any attention for two humans. Duster had agreed. Now they were sprawled in the courtyard, two very tired and cranky felines.
“If they are not in the forest, and not in Hogwarts,” Crookshanks began.
“They’re not dead. We’d know it. Therefore, they must have Apparated somewhere.”
“Why would they go there?” Duster rolled over onto his back. “They were supposed to be gathering ingredients for their project.”
“Perhaps they couldn’t find what they needed in the forest?”
“If that’s the case, they probably went to Diagon Alley.” The gingery tomcat scratched one ear thoughtfully. “Perhaps they decided to stay there for the night.”
“That might be. With the dream-sending we’ve been doing, perhaps they wanted greater privacy than they have here. Fawkes’ pet does have a tendency to be quite inquisitive.”
“You mean he’s nosy. Just like Fawkes.” Crookshanks cat-grinned. “You’re probably right.”
“Ah, there you are!” Chang said, as he minced across the damp grass. “Fawkes wants a quick meeting.” The dainty Siamese gave them a long measuring stare. “You look like you’ve been out in the woods all night.”
“That,” Duster replied as he dragged himself to his feet, “is because we were.”
“Where’s the meeting?” Crookshanks asked.
“In the storage room, as usual.” The Siamese winked one blue eye at them. “I shall see you there.”
The storage room had become the Familiars’ regular meeting spot over the past few weeks, and they’d taken steps to make it slightly more comfortable. Now all the chairs were soft and squashy for the cats. There were two heavy block perches for Fawkes and Topper. A large rug on the floor made a nice place for the two dogs, while a long low tray of water provided comfort for the toads.
“…have no idea what to make of it,” Thunder was saying as Crookshanks and Duster came into the room. “I thought that it was impossible until the marriage ritual had been performed.” His look of bewilderment was almost funny.
“Humans are quite remarkable pets,” Fawkes stated. “Every time we think we can predict how they’ll react, they do something like this to surprise us.”
“Like what?” Duster wanted to know from where he sprawled on one of the chairs. “Apologies; we just arrived.”
Thjalfe exchanged frustrated looks with Thunder. “My pet has informed Topper’s pet that she will be littering in about eight months. And – she has not seen fit to mention this to Thunder’s pet.”
“That does seem most odd,” Fawkes trilled. “Most humans eagerly share such information.”
“What’s surprising to me,” Swift interjected, “is that Thjalfe’s pet could produce offspring without the marriage ritual. I think most of us believed that the ritual was necessary.”
“And obviously,” Trevor croaked, “it isn’t.”
“Topper, have any other pets said anything to yours?”
The macaw tilted his head to one side and considered. “Not that I know of. Aren’t their pets the only ones who’ve actually mated?”
“That we know about,” Crookshanks said. “What if our pets are like us?”
“Like us? How?” Gambit got the words out first in a high-pitched yelp.
The gingery kneazle winced internally at the volume. “What if they don’t actually pair for life?”
“But they certainly seem to,” Cassandra objected.
“Perhaps we’ve been interpreting their actions incorrectly,” Duster said. “Thunder, your pet is the only one, I believe, who was mated for a long period of time. What do you think?”
“I have been thinking and remembering,” the brindled Manx replied. “Lucius was unhappy with his first mate, even though they had one kit together.”
“Draco, yes.” Fawkes said. “He would have been the perfect mate for Crookshanks’ pet.”
“Not if I had anything to say about it,” Crookshanks muttered to Duster. He left the Familiars’ meeting in a good mood that was improved even further by running across a mouse that was just one jump too far from its hole. After fastidiously cleaning his claws, he returned to Hermione’s room and curled up on the bed to sleep.
“And what earth-shattering secret have you been keeping, Miss Granger?” Snape saw they were closing on the edge of the forest, having made excellent time back towards Hogwarts.
She took a long breath. “When I first came to Hogwarts, that first night… I was scared. I didn’t know if I would fit in, and I’d met Malfoy – Draco – on the Hogwarts Express and didn’t like him at all.”
“None of this is news,” he interrupted.
“I know. It’s just…” She stammered and finally blurted, “The Sorting Hat wanted to put me in Slytherin.”
Severus stopped in his tracks and turned to look at her. “Slytherin? No Muggle-born has been sorted into my House for generations.”
“I know. I looked it up in Hogwarts: A History later. But Draco had been bragging about how all Malfoys were Slytherin, and I didn’t want to be in the same House as him. I told the Hat I’d rather be in Hufflepuff.”
“And it put you in Gryffindor. I’d wondered about that. I would have expected Ravenclaw.” He shook his antlers in annoyance. “Interesting though this may be, it is obviously not the solution to this curse.”
Hermione went on, heedless of the gentle compliment. “I know Slytherin would have been a better fit in many ways. I’ve had to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as some people, and I think I’ve proved that I’m their equal.”
“Slytherin isn’t about hard work.”
“Yes, I know. I want…” She stopped suddenly and looked down at her hooves.
“What? What is it you want?”
“I want to be a Potions Master. I want to brew fame and bottle glory! I want to put a stopper in Death itself!” She looked up a little sheepishly. “I’ve wanted that ever since the first day of Potions class. I tried so hard to impress you, to make you realize I was worth your time!”
“I knew you were a superior student after your first week,” Snape said slowly. “I could not tell you that, nor could I do anything but belittle you. It was not fair, but it was necessary.”
A compliment! Oh my! “It took me a few years to realize that.” But you agreed to oversee my research project this year, which was a handsome apology and more than makes up for it.
“You would be the first Potions Master of your generation. A worthy ambition, and not for the faint of heart. You would have to apprentice to a Master for several years, of course. There are two or three in Europe, and perhaps a dozen more throughout the world. You have the tenacity to succeed. I am certain of that.”
“I would prefer to apprentice with you. Sir.”
Snape’s heart rate almost doubled at her words, and it took him a moment to regain control of his voice. “Why would you want that?”
“Because I want to be with you.”
Two shocks in as many sentences. “I would like that also,” he replied without thinking.
They were both totally unprepared for the rush of magic that swept from nowhere like a pouncing lion. It buffeted and tossed them together like rag dolls, and departed as suddenly as it had come.
Snape staggered to his feet, reaching for his wand. His eyes scanned the forest around them searching for the source of the attack. Hermione, he noticed, had her wand in hand also, and was doing much the same thing. In her hand? Wait a minute!
He looked down at his feet. Feet! Hands. Not hooves. “I think we may relax, Miss Granger,” he said slowly. “We seem to have solved the curse.”
She lowered her wand and looked at him and then down at herself. “Yes. But… what was the solution?”
“Not here. Not now.” Snape looked around and got his bearings. “I do not want to stay in the forest any longer than necessary. This way.”
Hermione fell into step beside him, pondering what had been said just before the magic swept over them. I said I wanted to be with him, and he said he would like that. So what does that mean exactly? I hope he doesn’t want me just as an apprentice.
Snape thought it just as well that Hermione – he couldn’t break himself of thinking of her by her first name – was lost in thought for the remainder of the trek to Hogwarts. He had thinking of his own to do. She wants to study with me, not anyone else. But does she only want me as a Master? Could she want me as a man?
Once they entered the castle, Snape halted. “I’m sure you must be tired after the events of last night.”
Hermione grimaced slightly. “Exhausted would be more accurate. And I’ve no idea how I’m going to get back into my room without being seen.”
“I’ve a solution for that, at least. Come into the lab for a moment.”
He rummaged around in the cabinet and pulled out a vial of scarlet fluid and a spoon. “Cantor’s Concealment Potion. My imprecise brewing was rather successful. Once you take one spoonful, you’ll have twenty minutes of near invisibility to get into your room.”
“That should be more than sufficient.” She took the spoon and vial he offered her. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome.” Severus stored the vials of pooka blood carefully in the cabinet. “Our mission was successful in this regard at least. But I must go make a report to the Headmaster.” He made shooing motions with one hand. “Be off now.”
Hermione was pleasantly surprised by the taste of the Concealment potion. It reminded her of caramel-covered apples. It was also quite effective, she noticed, as she saw herself fade to near invisibility.
She put the vial down on Snape’s desk, noting that it became visible the minute her hand left it. While he put it away, she washed the spoon and set it out to dry. Then she opened the door and headed for Gryffindor Tower, being careful to avoid those few students who were up early.
The potion didn’t make her silent, she discovered. She was able to open the Fat Lady’s portrait with no trouble. The Common Room beyond was empty. As quietly as she could, she crept up the stairs and made her way to her room. With a cavernous yawn, she opened the door and let herself inside.
Crookshanks was asleep on her bed, she noticed as she shut the door behind her. She didn’t bother moving him; she simply undressed and crawled under the covers, dozing off almost instantaneously. Crookshanks opened one eye and looked at the gently snoring form huddled under the blankets and then cat-smiled as he began dream-sending again.
The early morning sun was burning the dew off the grass of the Quidditch Pitch when Xiamora Hooch strode out of the locker room with her broom over her shoulder and Thjalfe trailing along in her wake. She always did her best thinking while flying, and she had plenty to think about.
Lucius. Strange how he’d gone from enemy to lover over the course of the year. She hadn’t expected it at all. But he’d been civil, then friendly – and it was obvious that he was trying to be nice. And he knew a great deal about Quidditch; their conversations were truly enjoyable. It didn’t hurt a bit that he was a handsome man, with a well-toned body.
And he was very, very good at adult games. She grimaced. It wasn’t his fault that she was in this situation. She’d been enjoying his attentions, and she’d frankly been careless. She didn’t want to tell Lucius until she figured out what she wanted.
She kicked off the ground and sent her broom into a long lazy series of loops – maneuvers she could accomplish in her sleep. So what did she want? Her years of coaching had taught her that children from happy, stable homes were generally successful, productive adults. She reached up a hand and stroked her Familiar where he was perched on her shoulder.
Back up a minute. Do I really want a child? That’s the first question. The answer, she decided a few minutes later, was an unequivocal ‘yes’. The wizarding world needed children to replace those who had died during the war. She knew she would be a good parent.
So then. Child yes. But should she tell Lucius? That was a thornier question. She didn’t want him feeling trapped into ‘doing the right thing’. If I tell him, he’ll feel pressured to ask me to marry him. If I don’t, he’ll feel betrayed when he finds out. She wasn’t going to kid herself that he wouldn’t find out. So – I guess I’ll tell him – and then tell him that I won’t marry him.
It didn’t feel right. She sent her broom into spirals and urged it to greater speed, unhappily. There’s got to be a solution for this. If it weren’t for the child, I’d… She paused at the thought, and then a grin broke over her face. That’s the ticket! Elated, she executed a series of loop-the-loops and intricate spirals, exulting in the speed and control.
“All these greenhouses,” Neville said to Millie, “and they’re not using them nearly as efficiently as they could. Look here – there’s so much wasted space.” He pointed to a corner where Professor Sprout kept stacks of storage trays.
“But do we want to encourage efficiency?” she replied, looking around the greenhouse they were in with a slightly jaundiced eye.
“Think about it. If they don’t make best use of what they have, they'll need us even more in the future.”
“I guess so… but that just doesn’t seem right.” He leaned against a work table. “It feels like cheating somehow.”
Millie rolled her eyes. “Cheating? Why?”
“I don’t know. It… I know Professor Sprout… it…” He ground to a stop. “It isn’t right.”
“It’s business. Just good business. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“My great great-uncle Ebenezer used to think that.”
“Used to?” Millie was intrigued. “What happened to change his mind?”
“He said his business partner – a man named Jacob – made a very convincing argument, but I never heard any details.” Neville shrugged. “Since then, my family hasn’t been that interested in business.”
“Whereas my family has built a thriving one from nearly nothing over the past generation.” She let out a long breath. “I think we can help each other. My business savvy will keep us well-off, but your conscience will keep us from trampling on others.”
Neville looked much happier. “I like that idea.” He stuck out a hand. “Shake on it?”
The Slytherin grinned. “I’ve a better idea. Let’s seal the bargain with a kiss.”
Neville blushed brightly. “Um, I’ve... I mean…”
“Shut up and kiss me.”
After a long nap filled with tingly-making dreams, a hot bath, and a good lunch, Hermione felt much better. So much better, in fact, that she decided to corner the Potions Master and discuss the removal of the curse with him. While she agreed that he had been correct in tabling the discussion temporarily, she was determined to have it out with him and the sooner the better.
Unfortunately for her peace of mind, Snape was nowhere to be found. He wasn’t in the strongly warded lab, nor the library, nor in the Potions classroom, which was, surprisingly, unlocked. Hermione considered the idea of knocking on the door to his quarters for approximately .01 seconds, and then discarded the notion, albeit reluctantly.
“He’d kill me,” she told Crookshanks who had been following her around in her search for the professor. She sat down at her desk and sighed. “He’d bloody well kill me and chop me up for potions ingredients.”
“An interesting idea,” said a disembodied voice from the front of the classroom. “I could couple it with three feet of parchment on the potions which contain human body parts.”
Hermione squeaked in embarrassment. “Oh! You weren’t supposed to hear that!”
“Obviously not.” Snape faded into view, seated at his desk. “What heinous crime were you planning that I might consider a capital offense?”
“I… I…” She stammered and took a deep breath. “We need to talk about that curse. And why were you invisible?”
“I am attempting to modify the Concealment potion to make it more useful,” he replied. “True Invisibility potions are quite costly and difficult to produce, as I’m sure you already know.”
“Yes, sir. There are two basic types of Invisibility potions. One requires, um, residue, from a ghost – earth from the grave, bones, or similar. The other type requires a large quantity of gold or mercury. Neither is terribly palatable, by all accounts.”
“The Concealment potion is made from relatively common and inexpensive ingredients,” Hermione continued. “So if you can modify it, it would be extremely useful.” She stopped and regarded him. “You are attempting to distract me, sir. We need to discuss that curse.”
“More particularly how it was broken,” he corrected. “Yes, I suppose we do.”
“I had said that I wanted to be with you, and you said you would like that,” she recalled. “We’d been talking about my apprenticeship.”
“But were you talking solely of being my apprentice when you said that?” This is madness, Severus. Madness! She’s a student!
She looked as uncomfortable as he felt. “No… I wasn’t just speaking of that,” she said slowly, softly. “When you said you would like that – did you mean you would like having me as an apprentice?”
“I would enjoy a competent assistant, yes.” At the disappointment on her face, he felt constrained to continue, “But that was not all I was referring to.”
“What did you mean, then?”
Snape rose in a swift motion, his wand moving in what Hermione recognized as a series of quite powerful wards. When he was done, she was quite sure that no one and nothing could hear anything they said.
“I will only speak of it here and now, behind my wards. Contrary to popular belief, I do enjoy my job and would prefer not to be sacked for inappropriate behavior.” He returned to his desk, but perched on the edge of it rather than sitting in his chair. “You are my student, Hermione, for the next several months. Until you have finished your schooling, there can be nothing between us.”
“And after that, Severus?” She dared the intimacy of his first name. “You offered me an apprenticeship.”
“Yes, and I will not rescind the offer. But I was not speaking of that.” He snorted softly. “I am not an easy person to be with by any means. I am stubborn, callous, bad-tempered and sarcastic.”
“I know you are. I’m not easy to deal with either.” She propped her elbows on her desk and rested her chin on her hands. “I can’t count how many times I've heard that in the last few years.”
He ran one hand through his hair. “Let us have done with fencing. You attract me as no one else has in a long time.” He flushed slightly, unused to making such bald declarations.
Hermione gaped in amazement, her heart pounding. He does like me, at least a little! Snape was still speaking, heedless of the color rising in his cheeks.
“I enjoy the time I spend with you. But I cannot, will not, jeopardize my position here or yours.”
“Because I’m your student. That’s only for a few months longer. What then?” She held her breath, waiting for his reply. He can’t send me away. Not after this!
“There are no rules against liaisons between members of the staff here, so long as both are of age and unconstrained,” Severus admitted. Thoughts of Minerva and Albus crossed his mind for a moment. “We would have to be able to separate out our professional relationship from a more personal one. It would not be easy.”
The absurdity of the situation struck him then, and he gave a short barking laugh. “Lord what fools we mortals be!”
She wasn’t quite sure what he found amusing, and resolved to ask him about the Shakespeare misquote later.
“Listen to us,” he continued, chuckling. “We sound like we are a pair already!”
Now she burst into laughter also. “We do, don’t we.”
After a few moments, he sobered. “I do not believe we are fated to be together, but I am not averse to exploring a potential friendship.” He paused for a second. “After you finish school, of course.”
“I think that a thorough exploration would be an excellent idea.”