For Hogwarts: A Regency Gamble
Sunday, August 4, 2002
The morning dawned as bright as she could have wished, and Hermione slipped on her best afternoon dress, a fine figured muslin of tiny French blue flowers upon a white background. The empire waist, hem, and neckline were trimmed in braided bands of French blue. When she hurried to the entrance hall, she saw that she was the first one down, just as it ought to be. She organised the registration table, making sure everything was in order there, and soon she was joined by her helpers, all wearing their best day dresses and excited about the true beginning of Regency Week.
At eight o’clock, the Headmaster descended the stairs, precise to a pin in his Regency clothing. Penny hurried to him, her blue eyes fixed upon him hopefully. Hermione approached more slowly, ignoring the flash of annoyance she felt. Penny had a real interest in Snape, unlike Hermione, who simply needed the Headmaster to stand in for her former boyfriend as an escort.
I ought not to intrude upon Penny’s private moment with him, she thought.
Even so, he did not speak until Hermione came to a halt beside Penny. ‘I thought it behoved me to greet the guests with you,’ he said to Hermione. ‘They might expect to see me—though Potter’s presence might be more welcome,’ he added sardonically.
Hermione could not prevent her chuckle. ‘Oh, Harry won’t be down until it’s time to eat breakfast,’ she assured him. ‘He’s not exactly an early riser.’
Snape inclined his head in agreement, and then held out his arm to her. ‘Shall we go out to greet our guests?’ he said.
Hermione darted a glance to Penny, who looked somewhat miffed, but it did not prevent Hermione from taking the Headmaster’s arm and walking with him out into the August morning to greet the arriving guests.
There was a room just off the Great Hall which they had all taken to calling Violet’s antechamber, as it was Violet’s portrait which hung in the room. After breakfast, George and Luna went to their table in the antechamber, ready to sign up guests for the Regency Week theatricals. Apparently, putting on theatrical performances had been something the people of the Regency would do during a stay in the country, and somehow, George had received the assignment of coordinating and directing it. He and Luna had been working together on the project of growing the hedges for the maze—under Neville’s direction, of course—and it had seemed only natural to invite her to help him with the theatricals, too. The performance would take place on Friday night, which meant George and his helper had barely five days to put together a competent cast to perform for their fellow guests.
George sat down in a chair and opened the director’s book, where he had penned notes to himself about possible players for his theatrical endeavour. He had chosen selected scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as their project, and he already had some ideas of whom he could tap to take certain parts.
Other tables had also been set up about the room, where those in charge of various projects sat: McGonagall for dancing classes, Lucius Malfoy for fencing classes, Professor Mortelle for the language of fans, Professor Binns for the history of the Regency, Penny for drawing, Parvati for stitchery, Padma for music, Parkinson for period manners, and Draco for riding lessons. They were to remain in place until lunchtime, at which point Hermione said they could simply leave their sign-up parchments on their tables for the guests to sign.
Very few guests had wandered into the antechamber yet, so George took his opportunity to approach the fencing lesson table. Luna, as usual, was at his elbow, ready to assist.
Lucius Malfoy lifted his quizzing glass to his eye and looked them over. ‘Yes, Mr Weasley?’ he drawled.
George, undeterred by Malfoy’s high-handed ways, grinned irrepressibly. ‘Listen, Malfoy, I have a proposal for you.’ George leant forward, as if to divulge a great secret, and Luna leant with him, at precisely the same angle.
Malfoy looked bored. ‘You have my … undivided attention.’
‘I want you to take the part of the Theseus in our little theatrical …’ George told him.
‘… the Duke of Athens,’ Luna added helpfully.
Malfoy’s eyes widened slightly. ‘And why would I agree to something so … improbable?’
George leant closer still, Luna echoing his movement exactly. ‘Because I’ll get Professor Mortelle to play Hippolyta …’ he imparted.
‘… the Duke’s fiancée,’ Luna provided.
Malfoy’s gaze slipped to where Professor Mortelle sat, arranging a colourful array of fans upon her table top. ‘And have you secured her pledge?’ he asked meditatively.
‘Leave it to me,’ George promised.
Hermione peeked into the antechamber at mid-morning, pleased to see it filled with throngs of guests, all of whom had already attired themselves in their Regency garb. She threaded her way through them, stopping at each table to view the sign-up lists; she was delighted to see how enthusiastically everyone was responding to the offerings.
The only list with very few names upon it was the one before the nearly transparent Professor Binns, who was making the time pass by reading a text book. He did not look up when she stopped at his table, but someone else spoke to her.
‘Tell me, Miss Granger, have you put a curse on these parchments?’ a sly voice inquired. ‘Will those who fail to attend end up with unsightly spots upon their faces?’
Hermione whirled to the Headmaster, who was looking down at her with a good deal of amusement in his expression, but she was not appeased by his friendly attitude.
‘I never meant for that to happen!’ she whispered, horrified by this reference to the sign-up list for Dumbledore’s Army. ‘I wanted the spots to be persistent, but I never meant for them to be permanent!’
Snape did not speak, but put a hand at the small of her back and manoeuvred her up the steps and into the Great Hall, which was empty save for the house-elves tidying up the detritus of breakfast.
‘I was only joking,’ he said then, tilting her chin up with the tip of one long finger, then immediately withdrawing his hand from her face. His dark eyes were intent and watchful as he studied her. ‘I know you never meant lasting harm—and I also know who provided the treatment that finally cleared Miss Edgecomb’s complexion.’
Hermione felt her face crumple, though she fought against the reaction. If Ron hadn’t been keeping her upset half the time, she wouldn’t feel like bursting into tears so frequently. Snape thrust a handkerchief into her hands, and she dried her eyes impatiently.
‘It was a terrible spell—I ought never to have used it without being sure it wouldn’t hurt someone,’ she admitted.
He looked solemn. ‘I’ve never heard that you’ve done anything of that nature again,’ he said quietly. ‘We all make mistakes when we’re young.’
She was surprised he would say such a thing, and she must have shown it, for he added in a wry tone, ‘Believe me, I know.’
She tried to return the handkerchief to him, but he shook his head. ‘Keep it—one never knows when such a thing will be useful.’ A faint smile curved his thin lips. ‘Besides, I owe you one, for the token you gave me on Poker Night.’
The feeling of confusion which had been dogging her the last few days touched her again, and Hermione looked down, poking the fine lawn fabric, embroidered with his initials, into her reticule. ‘Well, you put it to good use, didn’t you?’ she said, thinking about Snape winning Ron’s schedule from him.
‘As you say, Milady,’ he said, and there was something in his tone when he spoke the last word that was between a taunt and a caress.
She looked up, startled. ‘Don’t call me that!’ she objected, unsure if she felt exasperation or alarm.
‘Call you what?’ He delivered his blankest expression.
‘You really are impossible, aren’t you?’
He produced an ironic bow, and she huffed and walked away.
After lunch, an abbreviated dancing class was held. The vast majority of the participants had not been present for the previous lesson, so McGonagall began that day with the easiest and most familiar of the Regency dances, if not the most widely danced in Regency times: the waltz. With the couple hand-in-hand, the man’s opposite hand at his partner’s waist, the waltz had been considered ‘fast’ by many in those days, and though it had been danced at town parties in London, it had seldom been seen in the country until later years. Clorinda McTavish, a distant cousin of McGonagall’s, was an accomplished pianist, and she had been offered a deeply discounted rate to attend Regency Week and play for the dancing classes and evening entertainments that might require such accompaniment. She was of an age with McGonagall, with short-cropped silver hair and a prim, prune-like mouth. Now she played waltz after waltz, strongly marking the time to assist the merry—and in some cases uncoordinated—attendees to learn the proper way to go about dancing it.
Severus waited in vain for Miss Granger to appear. He considered sending a house-elf to fetch her, but he had little doubt she would send back a denial of some sort, claiming event business. Instead, he watched the galumphing herd attempting to produce a creditable waltz, and his smirk of unholy amusement earned from Minerva McGonagall a glare and a sharp reprimand.
‘If you have nothing better to do, Headmaster, you might offer to dance with one of the unpartnered ladies!’
He held up one hand as if to ward off a blow. ‘Peace, Minerva,’ he murmured. ‘I shall leave you in possession of the field.’
And slipping from the room, he set off to change into his riding clothes. Surely he would see the girl at the Manor stables, though why he should so strongly wish to do so was a subject he didn’t care to dwell on …
Hermione dressed in her beloved riding dress, thrust a jaunty yellow daisy through her buttonhole, and set out for Malfoy Manor. Joining the booted guests gathered by the hearth in the drawing room, she led the way through the Floo.
She allowed Draco to boost her into Firefly’s saddle without protest, thanking him distractedly and riding out to the stable yard. She was still smarting from Snape’s reference to the debacle with Marietta Edgecomb and the spell which had emblazoned the word ‘sneak’ across the faithless girl’s face in bulging pimples. But even more, she was confused by the kindness he had shown afterwards—saying he was sure she’d never done such a thing again—and the teasing use of ‘Milady’. What did he mean by it?
More importantly, why was she still brooding about it?
Horologium Black greeted the beginning class, much larger today than the day before, and worked to get them all going about the paddock at a walk. Hermione tried to execute all the riding master’s instructions, but she had a difficult time keeping her mind on the lesson. It would have been easier had the experienced riders not been practicing their jumps within her sight. The black-clad rider on his equally black horse drew her eye more than once. There were other men ahorse whose grace in the saddle exceeded that of the Headmaster, and riders aplenty who cleared the jumps with the same facility he showed, but it was Snape to whom her gaze returned over and again.
The Headmaster was on foot in the stable yard when the lesson was over, and although Penelope Clearwater stood chattering at his side, it was Hermione upon whom his dark gaze was fixed as she rode toward the stable.
He came forward as she reined to a stop, looking her over critically. ‘Your seat is satisfactory,’ he commented, ‘and already you are coming to … grips with your reins.’
Hermione preened herself on the praise she received, storing up the slightly giddy feeling to enjoy at a later time. From this man, she was not accustomed to receiving commendation.
Her pleasant reverie was cut short as he reached for her. ‘Come—I’ll help you down.’
It was not so different from dancing with him, as she done the day before, this business of being lifted down from horseback. Yet she found herself more acutely aware of him than before, of the strength of his hands and the smell of him, a muddle of male sweat and musky shaving lotion.
She was thinking of Snape as if he were a man, and that didn’t feel at all seemly, somehow.
Penny was standing just behind him, chattering brightly to Hermione about the ride, but her words were impossible to distinguish above the sound in Hermione’s head—like a crashing of the tide upon the rocks—only it was her heart beating so loudly in her ears, and she couldn’t seem to form a coherent thought, much less utter a rational word.
Snape’s attention was fastened upon her face, a concerned—questioning, even—look about his eyes, but Hermione stepped quickly away from him. In so doing, she stumbled over the long skirt of her riding habit, her daisy fell to the dirt, and she tried to carry it all off with aplomb, although she felt totally embarrassed.
‘Thank you,’ she muttered.
The Headmaster bent to retrieve her lost flower, and she took the opportunity to go to Penny, rather like a drowning woman to a refuge. ‘Can we discuss the arrangements for the evening’s entertainment?’ she asked the other witch.
Penny cast a rather wistful look at the tall, silent wizard who watched them. ‘I was just speaking to the Headmaster about that,’ Penny said with a soft smile for Snape.
Hermione tugged upon Penny’s arm. ‘No, I mean the ladies’ amusements,’ she insisted, avoiding Snape’s eyes.
‘I will excuse myself, ladies,’ Snape drawled, and after bowing, he Disapparated.
Penny sighed loudly. ‘I wish he would help me down from my horse,’ she lamented sadly.
Hermione shook her head, but she didn’t say aloud what she was thinking.
I don’t want him to touch you.
Later that afternoon, Hermione induced Draco to walk with her to the maze and back, so that she could see how the guests were spending their free afternoon hours.
‘Why can’t you go with Severus?’ Draco demanded. ‘I was going to challenge Potter to another bit of shuttlecock and battledore—the guests loved that!’
Hermione busied herself with rearranging the shawl draped about her shoulders. Her nerves were still buzzing from her contact with Snape at the stables, and she didn’t want to have to deal with him again just yet—certainly she did not want to be alone with him for any length of time. Who knew what he’d say or do, or how she’d react to him?
Draco was by far the safer bet.
‘You’ll still have plenty of time for playing with Harry when I’m finished with you,’ she said firmly, tucking her hand in his arm.
They strolled down to the lake, passing, along the way the groups engaged in different games. The house-elves had spread refreshments beneath the trees, and Hermione was satisfied with the variety of drinks and nibbles offered. It filled her with pleasure to see the brightly clad Regency folk enjoying the summer sunshine and one another whilst involved in period amusements.
Then Draco uttered an exclamation of anger, and Hermione turned to see him confronting a young man with a camera—a young man who had been about to take their picture.
‘What are you doing?’ Draco demanded angrily. ‘I didn’t say you could photograph me!’
Hermione knew that Draco had an abhorrence for the small but annoying group of wizarding paparazzi; he had no wish to publicise his private life, and he was a perennial favourite of the photographers. She had often teased him that it was what he got for being so good-looking, but she also knew he had paid off more than one photographer not to publish photographs of him with other men.
‘There are loads of guests with cameras, you know,’ she began in a quick undertone, and then she recognised the cameraman. ‘And that’s Dennis Creevey. His brother was a photographer—he died at the Battle of Hogwarts.’ She went forward to the alarmed looking young wizard with a friendly smile. ‘Hi, Dennis! Of course you can take photographs, but not of Draco, because he doesn’t care for it.’ After a moment she added, ‘In fact, it would be best if you ask someone before taking their picture.’
Dennis nodded, backing away as if he was still a bit afraid of Draco’s wrath. ‘Okay, Hermione. It’s good to see you!’ He waved and moved on to the group playing at bowls, his camera swaying about his neck on its black strap.
Before dinner that evening, an hour was scheduled for the guests to gather in the drawing room, where the double doors had been thrown open to include the next room as well, to accommodate the increased number of people. A large drinks table was staffed by the unobtrusive house-elves, and everyone was encouraged to mingle and meet.
Neville stood miserably to one side, hot in his costume and dreading the mingling. Life had been easier for him when he had lived always in Harry’s shadow, but the Serpent Slayer had achieved a certain cachet of his own after the war. Strangers would walk up to him on the street and speak to him, and Neville hated it. He never knew what to say to someone he didn’t know. Harry and Ron had told him it was a good thing—that girls would swarm around him and want to sleep with him—but Neville wasn’t comfortable with that, either. In lots of ways, he wished things were like they’d been before.
As he watched the door, a young woman he’d never seen before came into the room, and his lips formed an ‘o’, as if he meant to wolf-whistle. The girl—for she was surely younger than Neville—had flaxen hair which clustered all about her head in ringlets, and her eyes were a clear blue so distinct that Neville could discern the colour from his place against the wall. She wore a silvery dress that reminded Neville of falling water. She hesitated for a moment in the doorway, and the Quidditch players, Fin and Krum, detached themselves from their group and bore down on her purposefully.
But the girl walked away from them, straight to Neville. Astonished, he stood straight, as his gran was always telling him to do, and when the beauty curtsied to him, he bowed in response. Was she lost? Did she think he could introduce her to Harry? He couldn’t do that right now, because Harry and Draco were still down by the lake, playing at badminton.
But the girl was extending a gloved hand to him and speaking in a soft throaty voice, tinged with a French accent.
‘You are Neville Longbottom, yes?’
Neville took her hand, staring stupidly into her beautiful face, and the longer he stared, the weirder he felt. Being near this girl made him want to keep her attention—to impress her—to somehow win her favour from all the other men in the room. Emboldened by an impulse he’d never felt before, he raised her hand to his lips, and she blushed.
‘But I don’t know your name,’ he said, still holding her hand, fascinated by the pink tinge of her cheeks.
She took a step closer to him, and he realised how much taller he was—how tiny she was in comparison to him. He was filled with a sudden manly determination to shield her from harm, and keeping her hand, he walked around her like an orbiting satellite, until she stood against the wall, and he was between her and the rest of the room.
‘Of course you do,’ she insisted softly, her blue eyes still fixed on his face as if he were some sort of god. ‘I am Gabrielle Delacour—I met you when I was ten years old.’ When Neville still looked confused, she elaborated. ‘In the Tri-Wizard Tournament, my sister had to rescue me from the lake—remember?’
And the girl’s identity crashed into place in Neville’s befuddled mind. She was Fleur Weasley’s younger sister—she had been just a little girl the last time he had seen her.
‘Of course,’ he answered. ‘I remember.’
She stepped closer still. ‘You are the Serpent Slayer,’ she said, as if perhaps Neville had forgotten. ‘I have read every word ever written about you in the newspapers. I think you’re the most courageous man I’ve ever heard of.’
Neville didn’t mean to mention Harry, but it came out of his mouth anyway. ‘No, you’re thinking of Harry Potter.’
Gabrielle, who smelled like the most exotic bloom Neville had ever encountered, tucked her small hand in his arm. ‘Harry is a wonderful person,’ she said with absolute conviction, ‘but you are my hero.’
Neville had wished to shield her before, but now he knew he would fight for her—to the death, if necessary.
‘Is there somewhere we could sit together and talk?’ she asked sweetly.
And he led her through the open French doors into the rose garden he had planted near the castle, just for such use.
Ron joined in the general laughter as Fin and Krum returned to their group, minus Gabrielle.
‘Foiled by Neville, of all people!’ George chortled.
Ron was bored. Hermione wouldn’t talk to him—not that he was sure he wanted to talk to her, mind you—and he wasn’t interested in flirting with Lavender or one of the Patil sisters. He’s been there and done that, really. He’d rather be watching a Quidditch match, or down the pub, drinking with his mates.
Regency Week was turning out to be as big a bore as he had expected it to be.
Penny Clearwater came up to them, and she had someone with her—a girl who seemed quite familiar to Ron, as if he’d once fancied her—but he couldn’t quite place her. She was shorter than Penny, with great dark eyes and dusky curls bound up with band of sapphire blue cloth, the same colour as her evening gown. She had a good figure, from what he could see of it in the long skirt; her hips were rounded, and her chest was quite nice to look at. Then he glanced again at her face, and knew he’d been caught out eyeing her up.
Penny was introducing Fin and Krum, and through his embarrassment, Ron caught her name.
‘This is Miss Romilda Vane,’ Penny said, and the dark haired girl gave a very proper curtsy. ‘And you know George and Ron, don’t you? They were in your House.’
Romilda smiled at each of them, but it seemed to Ron as if she held his eyes a bit longer than George’s. They began to move as a group towards the drinks table, and Romilda fell back to walk beside him.
‘You didn’t have to stop looking, you know,’ she said, darting a flirtatious glance from beneath her lashes.
‘Dunno what you mean,’ he lied, taking advantage of her permission and peering again at her cleavage. Impressive.
She laughed. ‘Where’s your fiancée?’ she asked.
Ron shrugged. ‘I’m not engaged,’ he muttered. ‘We just had … an understanding.’
Romilda laughed again, and Ron was surprised. He didn’t remember her from school, but whoever she was, this Romilda Vane was a jolly sort of girl—not at all like the very serious Hermione.
‘Can I get a drink for you?’ he asked, putting a hand at the small of her back to warn off any other bloke. This one was his—at least for now.
Sybill Trelawney sat quietly on a small sofa in a darkened corner and adjusted her various scarves and shawls. She didn’t care to come down from her tower—it clouded the Inner Eye, and that was not a good thing for a Seer—but the Headmaster had been adamant that she make an appearance. As little as she had liked him when he was a younger man, even Sybill had to admit that Severus Snape had proved himself a hero before the war was over. If he wanted her to make herself available to the guests, then she would do so—and if he wanted her to do a bit of crystal gazing in the cause of helping the school, she would do that, too.
For Hogwarts, there was no sacrifice too great.
‘Excuse me, but are you Professor Trelawney?’
Sybill looked up at the man who had spoken to her. He was of average height, much of an age with her, she would guess; his most distinguishing feature was a quantity of fluffy white hair. He wore a proper Regency costume, but he had charmed his pantaloons to an iridescent shade of yellow, which gave him a very distinct appearance.
‘I am Sybill Trelawney,’ she replied, inclining her head slightly. ‘Have we met before, sir?’
The gentleman inquired with a gesture if he might sit down, and Sybill graciously indicated that he might. He perched on the edge of the sofa and angled himself towards her, his slightly protuberant eyes bright.
‘I am Xenophilius Lovegood,’ he told her, ‘and my daughter, Luna, has often spoken of you to me.’
He smiled at her, a kind, gentle smile, and Sybill felt her lips curving in answer. ‘Ah, your Luna is a very good girl,’ she cried, delighted to able to deliver a good report to the parent of a former student. ‘Always so attentive in class, and with quite a gift for Seeing. I cannot tell you how many times Luna has gone out of her way to inquire after me, Mr Lovegood, and to ask how I was getting on.’ She nodded in fond remembrance.
‘Thank you, madam,’ the gentleman replied, ‘but please, you must call me Xeno. Already I feel that we will be good friends.’
Sybill could not recall the last occasion she had spent time with a man so courteous, so truly the gentleman. She leant towards him, offering her hand. ‘And you will call me Sybill, if you please.’
When his two large, warm hands engulfed hers, Sybill was assailed with a delicious, shivering tremble.
George waited for Lucius Malfoy to move away from his companion towards the drinks table. George then went quickly to stand before Professor Mortelle.
‘Good evening, Professor,’ he said, smiling jovially. ‘You are looking particularly beautiful tonight.’
The titian-haired witch smoothed one hand down her peacock blue gown. ‘Thank you, George,’ she answered sweetly, but her eyes were slightly narrowed, as if she were suspicious of his motives. ‘Might I assist you in some way?’
George nodded happily. ‘You are a woman of acumen,’ he said. ‘You can see when a bloke has a plan.’ He glanced towards the drinks table, making sure Malfoy was still otherwise employed. ‘Professor, I would like to ask you to take on the part of Hippolyta in our little production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have Mr Malfoy’s promise to play the Duke of Athens, but only if you will take the part of his Amazon queen. And truly, ma’am, there’s no one else I could ask, in good conscience, to take on the role.’ He drew himself up straight and spoke the truth. ‘Regardless of whether or not Mr Malfoy plays the part of Theseus, only you can properly play the queen of the Amazons.’
Leticia burst into laughter, but it was a ladylike sound, like the tinkling of bells. ‘You are a wicked young man,’ she scolded him, but for all her raillery, there was a speculative look in her blue eyes. ‘Very well, I will play the part—but only because there are no other Amazonian women about to take on the role.’
George punched the air. Just wait until Luna heard!
‘Thank you, Professor—you’ve made me the happiest man at Hogwarts!’
And giving her a proper bow, he hurried off to find Luna and tell her the good news.
Severus watched George Weasley’s interaction with Leticia Mortelle, wondering what the witch had done to make the boy punch the air and hurry off. Lucius had certainly been behaving strangely this weekend; in fact, his fascination with his red-haired femme fatale had intensified to such a degree that Severus couldn’t be with them and not notice the tension. He resolved to stay out of it; whatever they were brewing, it was none of his business.
The younger Weasley was paying court to a young woman whose one claim to fame in Severus’ memory was as the culprit who had given Potter a box of chocolates laced with love potion—the same chocolates which Weasley had ingested on the day he almost died. Of course, the poison that had nearly killed him had been in the wine Slughorn had given him to drink, not in the love potion. But Potter had once related the story to him of how ridiculously Weasley had behaved whilst under the love potion’s influence. Did Weasley realise he would have cell-deep memories of his fleeting, potion-induced passion for Romilda Vane? Ought Severus to warn him?
Certainly not. The prospect of letting it play out was far more entertaining.
Though they were drawing nigh unto evening, the summer sunlight was still bright out of doors, and Severus saw Gabrielle Delacour amongst the rose bushes with Longbottom firmly caught in her toils. The boy had grown to be a tall, broad-shouldered man, but he sat upon a bench with the glamorous Miss Delacour, reduced to near lunacy, his mouth hanging open wide enough to draw flies. Longbottom was wise in the ways of plants and fungi, but did he realise how a woman with Veela blood could confuse his senses and influence his choices? Ought Severus to warn him?
Trelawney was deep in conversation with Xeno Lovegood, which made a bizarre sort of sense. What made Severus much happier was seeing a delightfully flushed Miss Clearwater receiving the addresses of Finbar Quigley. It did his heart good, as well, to see Pansy Parkinson gaining—and holding—the attention of Viktor Krum. To his mind, the fewer single young wizards abroad, the better.
But the person for whom he was looking—the person about whom he could not seem to stop thinking—had been evading him for the best part of the day, and he was determined to put an end to it. He could understand her reticence—after all, she had been with Weasley since they were at school, and to be suddenly single would be disconcerting for her, at best—but he had to maintain her presence amongst the guests and preserve her functionality.
Relentlessly, he visited each group of guests, exchanged courteous nods and greetings with each person who hailed him, but he did not stop to chat, for he was on a quest. He left no corner uninvestigated, and in the end, he ran his quarry to ground in the kitchens. She had no business there, for the elves were feverishly preparing to serve dinner. But truly, she was staying out of the way; she sat quietly at a table in the corner of the room in her ivory-coloured evening gown, her clipboard before her as if she were working.
But when he drew closer, he saw that her unfocused gaze was fixed not upon her organisational charts, but upon the wall before her, and her ungloved hand, rather than wielding a quill, was mindlessly twirling a corkscrew curl at her temple.
‘Your guests are wondering where you might be,’ he said, taking her hand and rescuing the curl from its depredations.
Her large, honey-brown eyes watched him guardedly, and she gently withdrew her hand from his.
‘I—’ she began, but he did not allow her to finish. He drew her to her feet, watching as she returned the clipboard to her reticule. Then he picked up her discarded evening glove from the table and waited whilst she pulled it on again.
‘I don’t know why I’m not in the drawing room,’ she said, her attention stubbornly riveted upon her glove.
He took the newly gloved hand and tucked it into his arm. ‘Do you not, Milady?’ he said, looking down into her face, his hand covering her fingers.
She flushed and looked away. ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she protested, her voice muffled.
He continued to look down at her, patient and as inexpressive as he could manage to be, but she did not lift her eyes to his again. How could he reassure her of her of the safety of his regard—of his interest in her welfare—and at the same time convey to her his disinterest in her in any carnal sense? Liar, his inner critic observed, but he ignored the voice. Any admiration he felt for Granger’s physical charms was irrelevant; she was not the sort of female to indulge in the types of amorous intrigues he favoured—where mutual physical satisfaction was sought with no strings and no future plans, but a cordial adieu in the morning light—and he had no intention of trying his luck with her. No, he would have to communicate his intentions by actions, rather than words, and trust to her quick mind to pick up on the message he was sending.
Accordingly, he did not speak again but led her through the kitchen and back to the drawing room.
After dinner, during which Hermione sat at the Headmaster’s right hand, distracted and picking at her food, the guests scattered to the pursuits of their choice. George and Luna induced a number of their play participants to partake of a read-through of their parts; many of the older men dispersed to the clubroom, where they could drink and play games of chance; the older ladies sought their withdrawing room, where they could gossip and work at their tambour frame embroidery, a selection of which had been provided for them to choose from; and in the room where the pre-dinner gathering had been held, many of the young people induced Clorinda McTavish to take her place at the pianoforte so they could practice their dancing.
Hermione asked Harry to check in on the men—for women of the Regency times would never have entered a men’s club—and she made sure the sewing circle ladies were comfortable. She dreaded a return to the drawing room, because she had no interest in fighting off Viktor’s enthusiastic attempts to pull her into dancing with him, nor did she relish the idea of watching Ron pretending as if she were not in the room whilst he pursued the single girls who wanted to dance with him. Hovering in the corridor, she wished she had her wristwatch. She would not wear it pinned to her evening dress, for it would have spoiled the appearance of the gown, but it would have been nice to know if it were late enough to pretend to herself going to bed was a reasonable choice to make.
The Headmaster was upon her before she knew she was not alone in the corridor. How did the man move so silently?
‘I am persuaded you do not feel well, Miss Granger,’ he said gravely.
Hermione began walking, for it seemed a bad idea to stand about with him in the semi-darkness of the interior castle corridor. ‘I have a slight headache,’ she lied. ‘I’m thinking of going early to bed.’
He took her hand and pulled it through his arm, but panicked by his touch, she attempted to pull away.
They had progressed as far as the Entrance Hall, where they stood, glaring at each other. He refused to release her, but scowled down into her face. ‘Please rid yourself of the idea that I have designs upon you, Granger,’ he hissed. ‘We are allied in this … this event … and that is the extent of our association!’
Hermione heard him with mortification. What was wrong with her? Every time Snape appeared, she seemed to completely lose track of what she was supposed to be doing, and furthermore, he seemed fully cognizant of her perturbation. Obviously, he was not … confused about her as she was about him. The realisation made her suddenly angry.
She lifted her chin. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she declared. ‘I’m not thinking about you, Snape! And what’s more, it’s unfair for you to have a go at me when I don’t feel well! I can walk up to my room without any help from you!’
His annoyance was gone in an instant, as if having her raise her voice to him was far more acceptable than the suspicion that she was attracted to him.
‘I have no doubt that you can,’ he said, retaining her hand and beginning to walk with her to the staircase. ‘Nevertheless, I will feel better if I see you safely there, as any gentleman would do.’
His stress upon the word brought Hermione back to the proper frame of mind. He was staying in the character of the gallant Regency aristocrat, and she ought to return the favour to him.
‘I thank you, sir,’ she replied.
As they climbed the steps, they spoke of the day’s happenings, and Hermione acknowledged to herself that Snape was not the disinterested spectator she had expected him to be in Regency Week. He had evinced disdain for the project from the beginning—had, it had often seemed to her, disagreed with her at every turn as plans were being laid—and had given the impression that he would show up for the event only as a matter of necessity. Instead, he was proving to be a bulwark of reliability, a staunch ally, and—hackneyed expression though it was—a tower of strength.
Standing at her door with him, she offered her hand and thanked him for his consideration. To her surprise and gratification, he carried the gloved digits to his lips.
‘Of course, Milady—for Hogwarts.’
She swallowed, bobbed a tiny curtsy, and escaped into her room. The wild swinging of her thoughts on Snape was giving her the same seasick feeling she experienced aboard Muggle theme park rollercoasters—and the headache she had feigned was coming on. It was as if she could maintain neither a negative nor a positive opinion of him for longer than five minutes at a time. She was beyond bewilderment, well into the realm of lunacy.
The worst thing of all was the insane realisation that she wished she had invited him into her bedchamber.
Severus stared for a moment at her closed door; then he paced down the corridor and let himself in the darkened entry at the end. This time, he was not surprised to see the orange cat, though he was a bit startled when it darted past him into the ill-lit passage. Was it running to demand its entrance to her presence?
He moved to the tallboy and began to empty his pockets, the first ritual in preparing for bed. From within his coat he removed Ronald’s personalised schedule, a dainty ladies’ handkerchief, a tarnished silver ring, and atop this last, he placed a wilted yellow daisy. Upon further consideration, he placed the flower between the pages of the book he carried in his pocket, pressing down firmly to flatten it.
‘Fool,’ he said, but there was little heat in his voice. His idiocy was undisputed—why did he retain possession of all these things?—but he was rather too weary of body and perplexed of mind to properly berate himself tonight.
Instead, he crossed to pour a snifter of brandy and seated himself in the chair closest to the wall—her wall—listening for the nightly outpouring of her broken-hearted tears. With his left hand, that one closest to her, he pressed fingertips to the smooth wood separating them, as if a careful examination of the surface would answer the unformed questions in his mind.
When the brandy was gone, there was yet no sound coming from the girl’s room. In some measure gladdened by this fact, he went off to bed and dreamt restless, unremembered dreams.
A/N: The Author has altered Gabrielle Delacour’s birthdate to make her eighteen years old at the time of this story.