“I have to say, Albus, that I think Miss Granger may be making a mistake trying to combine an Assistantship and an Apprenticeship. At the very least, it will take her an extra year to complete the latter.”
“Two more years,” the Headmaster corrected absently, twirling the end of his beard with one hand as he watched the couples on the dance floor.
“Two years!” Minerva almost exploded. “Where did you get that figure?”
“Oh, Severus and Miss Granger came to me to finalize the arrangements – it was the evening I made the announcement about the dance. I’m sure I mentioned it…” He trailed off at the growing scowl on his lover’s face. “Perhaps I got distracted.”
“I’d say so,” Minerva agreed without softening her glare. “Two extra years! Severus has nearly doubled the length of time required!”
“Now really, Minerva, Miss Granger did agree to it. You can’t fault Severus. Besides, he’s agreed that she should draw the standard Assistantship salary for the entire five years.”
“Well I should hope so,” Minerva replied with some asperity. “What were the other terms of the agreement? As the Deputy Headmistress, I am entitled to know.”
She’s altogether too clever, Albus thought a trifle ruefully. “Severus insisted on the traditional terms of an Apprenticeship. I know you wanted her for your assistant, but I’m quite sure that Miss Patil will be more than adequate.”
Minerva grumbled quietly to herself. Albus was right. As usual.
“Besides,” the Headmaster continued, “it isn’t as if you’ll never see Miss Granger. She’ll be here, after all.”
“True enough. I’ll have to rearrange Gryffindor Tower to accommodate a suite for her. Perhaps we can add a fourth level.”
“That won’t be necessary. She won’t be staying in the tower.”
“And why not? She is a Gryffindor, after all!” The best and brightest my House has produced in a long time, she added silently.
“As is Miss Patil, yet she is planning to take rooms on the fourth floor corridor.”
“Touché. Has Miss Granger indicated what rooms she wishes?”
The Headmaster looked a bit uncomfortable. “Severus insisted that Miss Granger’s suite be located in the dungeons – where they would be convenient to both the lab and the Potions classroom.”
“You’re being quiet tonight,” Millie observed as she and Neville made their way out into the garden after sharing the first three dances. In deference to the cold, she cast Warming Charms on their cloaks. “In fact, you’ve been very quiet for the last few days. What’s wrong?” She sat down on one of the benches and looked up at him. “Are you back to that ‘can’t trust Slytherins’ nonsense?”
Neville let out a sigh. “It’s – it’s not a secret exactly. Just something I don’t know if I should talk about it.” He sat down next to her on the bench and looked down at his hands. The Sidhe’s ring gleamed on his finger. “It – there’s something I’ve been invited to do that no one will understand.”
“I won’t promise that I’ll understand, but I will promise to try. And I won’t tell anyone else.”
Neville reached out and broke a dead stem off one of the rose bushes. “Watch this.” He hummed several bars of the Sidhe’s music. As he did, the stem turned green and burst into bloom. Ever since the snap inside his mind, he’d found his abilities growing in ways he’d never expected. This was one of them.
“That’s incredible,” Millie gasped. “I knew you were good in Herbology, but I’ve never heard of anything like that!”
He handed her the roses. “That’s only part of it. There’s more.” A long breath. “I went to a dance the other night.”
Her eyes narrowed as she thought aloud. “There wasn’t any sort of dance here, and none in Hogsmeade. What sort of dance was it? A Muggle dance.”
Despite himself, Neville chuckled. “Muggle? Not hardly!” The chuckle faded. “I saw the Sidhe dancing in the Forbidden Forest.” Slowly, he told her about his adventure, and the invitation that came after. “And since then,” he concluded, “I haven’t felt the same. I feel more alive, somehow.” He held up his hand, showing her the ring. “I don’t know what they meant by this either.”
“Legend says that if the Sidhe grant a token of regard, it’s like becoming part of that band,” Millie said thoughtfully. “I would bet that the Headmaster could tell you more about them. Or – Professor Malfoy! He probably knows a lot that he didn’t go over in class! Let’s go find him and ask!” She jumped to her feet.
“I think we’d better wait,” Neville replied, pointing off in the distance where two figures on broomsticks danced through the air. “I think he’s busy right now.”
The two fliers dipped and swerved fifty feet above the ground, cutting figure-eights and intricate spirals in three dimensions. Shoulder to shoulder, almost touching, displaying an exultant jubilation that could be expressed no other way. Above them, the night sky was an infinite velvet canopy of the deepest blue picked out with shining points of silver light.
They landed in the middle of the Quidditch Pitch finally, glee-filled and laughing. Brooms on their shoulders, they trekked back toward the school. It was only natural that Lucius should put an arm around her shoulders. It was only right that she should put her arm around his waist.
“It’s been a wonderful evening,” Xiamora said.
“And we shall have many more such,” he replied, pulling her closer. “I can’t imagine what our fellow faculty will say when we announce our engagement.”
She nodded. “Won’t they be surprised!”
Three days after the Saint Valentine’s dance, Hermione and Snape completed their latest brewing attempt – a failure like its predecessors. The Potions Master said nothing as they cleaned up the lab. He simply gestured for her to follow him once the task was done.
Curiously she trailed along in his wake. He seemed more preoccupied than angry. They left the castle and followed the lake shore away from the school. They were well past Hogwarts’ wards by her estimation when he finally stopped.
“One moment more, Miss Granger.” Snape took out his wand and began setting up a series of privacy and shielding spells. Once she realized what he was doing, she added a low-level camouflage spell to the wards he was raising. He nodded in approval. “That will do.”
“Someone would have to know exactly where we are in order to track us,” she said. “And the wards at the school could alert someone there to the spell-casting. So this is meant to be a completely private conversation.”
“Exactly.” He took a small parcel from a pocket and opened it. It was a hand-sized mirror wrapped in silk. “I left this in the lab last night with a Recolligo spell on it. If someone at Hogwarts is responsible for tampering with our brewing, I prefer to find out without alerting them to the fact.”
“I didn’t know you could cast that Recording spell on an object,” Hermione replied, looking at the mirror intently. “I read that it’s primarily used in the making of Pensieves. What is the replay spell… Audius? No, that’s for hearing.”
“Praefero.” The silvery face of the mirror blackened, and then cleared to show the cauldron standing over the gentle flames. Despite the small size, the image was sharp and clear. Their mirror-selves added the final ingredients, and left the room. For a short time all was quiet, then there was a tiny thump from the mirror and two feline forms, one dark and one gingery, oozed into view and stared at the cauldron.
“The flames,” Snape said a moment later. “Look!”
“They’re much lower than they should be. The cats must have changed the temperature! Now what is Duster doing?” The cat had stretched to his full length and was shaking a paw over the cauldron.
“Adding something, I’d warrant. Enough to contaminate it, but not enough to be easy to detect, especially after a long simmering.”
“Dust,” Hermione guessed. “Dust picked up from the floor of the lab would have all sorts of minute magical components in it. That’s brilliant! Fiendish, but brilliant! Our potion is sensitive to the purity of its ingredients.”
After several more minutes, the cauldron flames returned to their original intensity, and the cats vanished. Snape let out a frustrated breath and returned the mirror to his pocket.
“I am at a loss,” he said. “On the one hand, I’m pleased to have the mystery solved and impressed by the tenacity and cleverness of our Familiars. On the other, I am not sure what we can do to prevent future occurrences.
“We didn’t have this problem with the first part of my potion. It works perfectly. So they don’t object to Animagi talking to people. Just to animals. Why?”
“An excellent question. Perhaps we should ask them. I think it’s obvious that they understand what we say. I don’t know if they could answer though.”
Hermione wrinkled her brow for a moment. “Do you remember when Harry kidnapped me and Professor Flitwick’s dog and Madame Pomfrey’s parrot helped me escape?”
“Yes, of course.” Snape decided not to mention that the ‘parrot’ was more properly a macaw.
“I might have imagined it – but I thought Swift actually spoke to me at one point. In English.”
“I think it likely that you did not imagine it. How do you think we should proceed?”
An unholy, wicked grin settled on her face, making her look much more Slytherin than Gryffindor. “Does Veritaserum work on Familiars?”
The Familiars were in high good humor at their meeting. In fact, they were spending it in idle conversation rather than actively scheming. It was apparent, Fawkes thought to himself, that their plans were maturing quite nicely. His own pet, naturally, had presented no trouble.
He’d been worried about Thunder’s pet, but that had proved to be no problem at all. Likewise, Hephaestus and Norris were making arrangements for their pets’ marriage ceremony. He ran down his mental checklist, and looked over to the windowsill where Duster and Crookshanks were discussing something.
“And how is your project coming?” he asked.
The two cats exchanged looks, and Crookshanks replied. “We can’t really push them into a more intimate relationship until after the school year ends. Since Hermione is working for Severus for the next few years, we have plenty of time for that.”
“Of more importance,” Duster continued, “is this potion they are working on. They are perilously close to success with it.”
Fawkes nodded. “Yes, they cannot be allowed to complete it.” He didn’t have to explain – the wizarding world would be thrown into total chaos if their pets found out exactly how much control and influence their Familiars exerted over their lives. It would not be pretty. In fact, it would be downright ugly.
“We are running out of ideas,” Crookshanks said flatly. “They are both stubborn, and working together seems to make them more so.”
“We have sabotaged multiple attempts, to no avail. They keep trying.”
“In this case,” the phoenix said, “have you considered making them forget about it?”
“We’ve discussed it,” Duster replied. “It would be a complex task to do such a thing without leaving any sort of trail. As Albus and Minerva are aware of the project, you and Gambit would have to modify your pets’ memories as well.”
“And we’d have to make all their notes and all the samples disappear, plus come up with some way to account for all the time they’ve spent together. Yes, we’ve thought of it, and we decided it was far too difficult to do without leaving clues behind.” Crookshanks scratched an ear. “Our pets would quickly realize that something wasn’t right, and would bend their efforts to solving that mystery – which would be just as disastrous.”
“A pity, that.” Fawkes said. “You are right, of course. Well, do what you must; that potion must not be completed.” He looked around the room. “Topper! How is your plan coming along with Swift?”
The macaw looked up in surprise. “Slowly, and carefully. We do not wish to push too hard. Poppy is already muttering about Love Charms in the air. She is not truly suspicious yet, though.”
“Our intention is to pursue this in greater depth during the summer when they have no students to worry about,” the borzoi added. “Filius is busy with his duties as Head of House, especially as the school year winds down.”
“Quite sensible,” the phoenix agreed. He fluffed out his feathers in satisfaction. “In fact, it seems that the older pets are much more amenable to pairing up than the younger ones. Macavity, have you and Trevor any news to report?”
“There do not appear to be any problems with our pets,” answered the gingery tomcat. “Neville was acting oddly for a few days, but that appears to have stopped after the last school dance. Trevor is watching him to be sure that no problems occur.”
“Lavender is not ready to settle down,” Shadow said, as the phoenix glanced in her direction. “It is not in a butterfly’s nature to sit on a single blossom. She enjoys the time she’s spent in the company of Chang’s pet, but still is interested in other young men.”
“That means she’s flighty,” Duster whispered softly to Crookshanks.
“Tis the nature of the beast,” Chang added, ignoring the black tom’s muttering. “Our pets are still quite young. Give them time, and they will grow into sense.”
“We do not have that luxury!” Fawkes trilled. “A month or two – even a year – we could wait. But no longer. Humans take so long to mature, that we must not tarry if there are to be pets available for our future generations. You must try harder!” He looked around at the other Familiars. “You must all try harder!”
“Veritaserum?” Snape considered the suggestion. “Perhaps.” He looked at the grin his assistant was wearing. “And it should prove quite enlightening. How would you suggest we induce them to swallow it?”
“It only takes a few drops to take effect. Perhaps we can spike their dinners with it.”
“Do we need both? It might be easier to handle one angry cat than two.”
“Yes, but they’re both involved in scuttling our research. I’d like to pay them both back for it.”
“Hmm.” Snape’s face twisted into an evil grin of his own. “You are on good terms with that house-elf, are you not?”
“Dobby? Yes, and Winky to a lesser extent. They’ve finally forgiven me for trying to liberate them.”
“Excellent. I will provide you the Veritaserum, and you will instruct them to add it to the portions they bring out for our cats’ dinner this evening. Be discreet, and be sure that they understand it is only for our cats. It would be disastrous if it got into the wrong food.”
“Oh, Severus! That’s a terrific idea!” Before she realized quite what she was doing, she threw her arms around the Potions Master and hugged him. For a single awful moment, she thought he would push her away, and then his arms were around her as well, and one of his hands was caressing her hair.
His body was hard and angular, like hugging a statue, except that he was warmer. Not at all like Seamus. She looked up at the man she was with, some part of her mind again making comparisons – Snape was much taller than the Irish boy had been. As their eyes met, she saw something glittering and unreadable in his. Then his lips brushed hers softly and gently.
It only lasted a moment before he stepped away.
“I’m sorry, Severus,” she said quietly. “I didn’t mean to…”
“I know.” He sighed heavily. “It is not entirely your fault. I should not have let you.”
“Things will be different after the school year is up.” It wasn’t a question.
“You are talking about becoming lovers.” For some reason he found this unsettling.
“Why not?” That brief kiss had convinced her that this was everything she wanted.
Snape let out a long breath. “Hermione, you are much younger than I. Are you sure that this,” he pointed to himself, “is what you want? Wouldn’t you be happier with a younger man?”
She snorted. “You told me once that I should never settle for less than the best in what I want. I don’t think anyone else could make me feel the way you do. I don’t want a younger man. I want you.”
Snape strode into the Great Hall for dinner that evening with Duster riding his shoulder. He hoped Hermione had been able to talk to the house-elf. As he took his accustomed seat, he caught her eye and she nodded just slightly. A moment or two later, his dinner appeared in front of him, with a smaller plate next to it for his cat. Similar arrangements appeared at nearly every place; most witches and wizards had their Familiars with them.
Mr. Potter was one of the few without a Familiar. Miss Weasley, however, was happily sharing her dinner with the kitten that Filch had given her at the dance. All six of the kittens had found new homes, according to the caretaker. Snape was just as glad; he didn’t want a second cat.
Not knowing if Duster could truly tell what he was thinking, Snape focused his mind on the minutiae of the day: planning what to put on the NEWTs for the seventh year students. Unlike most of his peers, he rarely chose questions related to what he had specifically covered in class. Instead, he selected questions that would assess how well his students had learned to apply what they had been taught. He had no doubt that Hermio – that Miss Granger – would do quite well.
Halfway through his dinner, he stole a quick glance at his Familiar. Duster had already finished his meal and was polishing the dish with quick swipes of his long pink tongue. If the house-elf had accomplished his task, the Veritaserum should begin to take effect in the next few minutes. “Come, miscreant,” he said as he picked up the black cat. “I’ve work to do tonight.” He settled Duster on his shoulder and rose, certain that Miss Granger would notice and join them shortly.
He entered the lab and sat down at his desk. Duster curled up in his lap as he began marking the latest batch of essays. It wasn’t long before the expected tap on the door came. “Enter!”
Hermione opened the door and came in, carrying her Familiar in an odd plastic box with a grate on the front. “I thought the cat-carrier might be a good idea,” she said.
“Yes, I can see that.” He swiftly transfigured the inkwell on his desk into an identical carrier. Before Duster realized what was going on, the black tomcat was also securely imprisoned. The two outraged Familiars snarled and spat and finally subsided into a sulky silence.
“Now,” Snape said, addressing the two carriers, “we've learned that you two have been sabotaging the potion that we've been working on. We’d like to know why.” When there was no answer, he sighed and rephrased. “Why are you sabotaging the potion we’ve been working on?”
“Because humans should not be able to speak with animals or Familiars,” Duster answered. He looked horrified as the words came out in a gravelly baritone.
“Duster!” Crookshanks yelped. “What are you doing?”
“What’s the harm?” Hermione asked, looking at her cat. “Why shouldn’t we be able to speak to you?”
“You would learn things you are better off not knowing.” Now it was Crookshanks’ turn to look horrified.
Duster got a calculating look on his face. “You used Veritaserum on us! Don’t deny it!”
“I wouldn’t dream of denying it,” Snape replied. “You have a choice. Either you can explain yourselves completely and to our satisfaction, or we will keep you in these cat-carriers until the potion is completed.”
The two cats exchanged a long look through the gratings.
They are serious, Crooks.
I know, but what do we do? The minute either asks a direct question, we are compelled to answer.
Tell them. They are not stupid. They will understand.
And if they don’t? The Veritaserum affects all our magic, you know.
Then we make them forget. After it wears off.