For Hogwarts: A Regency Gamble
Monday, August 5, 2002
Hermione did not sleep well that night. Snape's delivery of her to her door, almost as if he had wished to preclude anyone else from doing so, had not prevented her from lying awake till all hours, trying to sort out her feelings. She had never before refused to accept one of Ron's half-hearted apologies, and it made her feel odd not to give in. But in the past when she had forgiven him, it had been because she missed him and wanted him to be with her. Now, she didn't miss him at all, even though he had been her boyfriend for so long that she scarcely knew how to think about herself without him. Being single would also change how she interacted with men. With the security of a steady boyfriend at her back, she had been able to relate to other men without constraint, confident in her status as half of a couple. But now, she found herself somewhat unhinged by Viktor's flirtation and Fin's admiring looks and yes, even by the Headmaster's punctilious, Regency era courtesies to her.
Never mind the bizarre force field which seemed to surround them whenever Snape was with her, heightening every one of her senses to a fever pitch.
Waking with the dawn light streaming through her window, she felt not at all rested. Still she rose and dressed, put her hair up, and cheated with a bit of make-up to hide her pallor. The best cure she knew of for emotional turmoil was work, and there was plenty of that to be done!
She went first into the Great Hall, which was meticulously set for breakfast. Next she went into the kitchen, where she was met by Herpie, who bowed until his nose touched his knees.
'Yes, Miss, we is getting along very well,' he assured her. 'Miss can leave the food to the house-elves and enjoy her meals.'
Climbing up the steps again to the Entrance Hall, she encountered Snape. He was down betimes for breakfast, and a familiar line appeared between his brows at the sight of her face. He came forward immediately.
'Are you well?' he inquired, his manner almost gruff. 'You're pale.' His lips tightened for a moment, and then he said, 'I thought you had slept well last night.'
Hermione paused in surprise and tilted her head to one side, considering him in his blue coat of superfine and buff pantaloons. 'Why did you think—how would you know how I slept?'
For several moments neither of them spoke nor looked away. He studied her with narrowed eyes, and she wondered why he would say such a thing. Finally, he led her along the way to an unused classroom. He gestured her within and cast a Privacy Spell at the door.
'Your room is near my quarters,' he said quietly. 'In the past few nights, there have been times when I have heard you weeping—but last night, you did not. Not that I could hear.'
He had heard her crying? Then had he also ...
He spoke again before she could ask. 'I also heard your disputes with Weasley—the loudly spoken parts, at any rate—but you need have no worries that I will talk about what I've heard.'
Good God, Snape had been a witness to her rows with Ron? Could anything be more humiliating?
'Wait! How can your quarters be near mine?' she said doubtfully. 'There are only three rooms on my corridor, and Harry and Ron have the other rooms there.'
Snape looked discomfited. 'It is the door at the end of the corridor,' he said stiffly. 'It is seldom used. But it leads to the Headmaster's chamber, which has a wall in common with yours.'
She couldn't decide how she felt about that. There was something about the idea of Snape sleeping on the other side of her wall that was strangely disturbing, but not in a totally bad way. At any rate, no matter what she felt about the situation, there was no changing it. Every room in the castle was being put to use, including those in the student dormitories; in fact, those had been the cheapest beds available for booking. So, since there was no place for her to move to, she might as well be blasé about it.
Forcing herself to sound cheerful rather than pathetic, she said, 'Then it's no hardship for you to walk me to my room at night.'
He was quite still for a moment, the harsh planes and angles of his face impassive. Then he bowed. 'As you say, Milady.'
Though she was secretly pleased with the nickname, Hermione felt honour-bound to protest. She turned away from him, throwing up her hands comically as she did so.
'Don't call me that!'
He moved past her to open the door. 'Call you what?' he deadpanned as she passed through the doorway.
Some of the classes met that morning after breakfast; amongst them was the Use and Language of Fans, taught by Professor Leticia Mortelle. She was regal that morning in a walking gown of purple lustring, and she carried a fan of delicately painted lavender silk set upon ivory sticks. More than twenty ladies came into her first floor classroom, and she greeted each of them graciously, inviting them to choose a fan from amongst those arrayed upon a nearby table.
From just outside the doorway, Lucius Malfoy watched her, his whole body aching to possess her—to be possessed—it was all one thing, and he could scarcely think of anything else.
She was an exquisite, terrifying woman, and he had admired her from their first meeting, but his slide into true attraction had only begun at Christmas—and it was not until two days ago that his epiphany of her with the riding crop had sealed the fate of his helpless love for her. Where else in the world did there exist such a perfect blend of ruthlessness, rapier wit, and rampant (if tightly reined) sexuality?
No, he would make no comparison with Narcissa—he would not waste the thought upon her.
Now he stepped into Leticia's classroom, just as she was preparing to close the door.
'May I help you, Lucius?' she inquired pleasantly—but there was a warning in her eyes, and he thrilled to it.
'I am here to be instructed in the language of fans,' he explained, drawing a few giggles from the collected ladies about the room.
Leticia's eyebrows arched. 'Fans are for ladies,' she pointed out. 'Gentlemen do not carry them, so this class can be of little use to you.'
He picked up a Chinoiserie fan, black with gold gilt figures upon the sticks. 'But men did carry them, chérie, in the eighteenth century.' He touched the handle to his lips, his grey eyes intent upon her face.
Her mouth curved, enchanting blue eyes dancing. 'And already you flirt with the fan, don't you?' She turned from him, speaking over her shoulder as she did. 'Sit here, with me, and I will use you as a model—you may demonstrate for me.'
A lesser man might have scorned such an invitation, but Lucius cared nothing for the women there to hear Leticia speak—only she mattered, and she had welcomed him into her classroom.
Hermione waited until the ladies streamed from Professor Mortelle's classroom; then she entered, clipboard in hand—only to find Lucius Malfoy with his back pressed firmly to the blackboard, his arms full of Leticia, whose lips were pressed just as firmly to his mouth.
Her mouth forming a soundless 'o', Hermione stood frozen in the doorway. She had no intention of interrupting—ought to go away immediately, in fact—but found she was loath to walk away from such a show of unfettered passion. She was stricken with a piercing envy—when had she ever been kissed with such abandon?—and she studied the way Mr Malfoy crushed his lady to him with desperate hands, how Leticia wound her fingers into the hair at the nape of her swain's neck, as if the better to control his movements, and how her other hand, trapped between her chest and his torso, held a slightly crumpled lavender fan.
Hermione was recalled to her sense of place and time when one of Mr Malfoy's hands, leaving for a moment its job of holding his lady as close to him as might be possible, gestured for her to go—more a plea than a command—and Hermione backed out of the room, softly closing the door.
Obviously, things had gone quite well for Professor Mortelle's Use and Language of Fans class. She put a tick mark upon her clipboard parchment and moved on.
In dancing class that morning, Professor McGonagall attempted to instruct her pupils in the intricacies of the minuet. It might have been because of the large number of couples in the room, or because of the relatively early hour—or indeed, because the young people were more interested in interacting with one another than paying attention to their instructress—but there was a distinct lack of progress being made. Only one couple, shy though they had been together at the beginning of the lesson, showed an understanding of the steps, and Minerva was quick to pick up on their facility.
'Sybill,' she called, when the music had stopped.
Professor Trelawney approached, her partner trailing at a discreet distance.
'You and your partner seem to know the dance. Would you demonstrate its proper execution for the guests?'
Arthur Weasley, who stood near the front of the room holding his wife's hand, added his voice to the plea. 'Please do, Professor Trelawney. Molly and I saw how well you dance it—show us how to do it.'
Sybill blushed, the youthful reaction adding flattering colour to her thin cheeks, and she glanced at Xenophilius Lovegood. Xeno, whose trousers on this occasion had been charmed to an alarming shade of chartreuse, bowed. 'I have no objection, dear lady.'
Sybill smiled mistily at Minerva. 'Mr Lovegood and I both learnt the minuet in our youth, you know,' she said.
Xeno took her hand and led her to the center of the room. When Madam McTavish began again to play Bach's Minuet in G, Sybill and Xeno showed the respectful watchers how the thing was properly done.
Hermione checked in with Parkinson, who gave her to understand, with a brusqueness that would have been considered quite rude in Regency times, that her class on Manners and Customs of the Regency had been a success. She looked Hermione over with the insolence that had made Hermione hate her at school.
'Why don't you put that stupid clipboard away and go enjoy the day for a change?' Parkinson demanded irritably. 'Go and dance with the Headmaster or something. I don't need you buzzing around me like a busy little bee, and I'm sure the other girls don't either.'
Hermione pressed her lips together, determined not to tell Parkinson off. She spun on her heel to go, but Parkinson let off a parting shot.
'And stay away from Krum while you're at it—I fancy a go at him, myself.'
That made Hermione pause and look over her shoulder, suddenly interested. 'Do you?'
Draco was the only person present in the History of Magic classroom, where Professor Binns was speaking in a droning, monotonous voice about the political ramifications for the Muggle government in the Napoleonic wars. Hermione sat down in the desk next to his, where he lounged with his legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles, his fingers laced at the back of his neck.
'What are you doing?' she whispered.
'Having a bit of a nap,' he answered. 'I was passing by, and the old boy was droning on to no one.'
Hermione began to make a note on her clipboard, but quick as a striking snake, Draco snatched it from her hand. 'Will you stop that?' he said testily.
She reached for it, but he held it up over his head, keeping it from her.
'Draco, give me that!' she cried, and her noise caused Professor Binns to pause in his monologue and look at them.
'Sorry, sir,' Hermione said.
Binns nodded distractedly. 'Do try not to disrupt class, Miss Garner,' he said.
Draco jumped up and left the room, and Hermione followed him.
'Give me my clipboard,' she demanded. 'I'm in charge of this event, you know—I keep up with everything using my clipboard!'
Draco allowed her to close her fingers on the clipboard, but he did not release it. 'Hermione, this thing is running like a well-oiled Muggle machine. You worked on it for a year. Would you just unclench and enjoy it?'
She frowned. 'If I do that, everything will fall apart.'
'Could you just trust yourself for once?' he said, finally allowing her to take possession of her property.
She shook her head stubbornly.
Draco sighed, hands on his hips. 'Fine. I'll make a game of it. You give it a break for the rest of the day and enjoy the activities. Tomorrow at breakfast, you can thank me—oh, and tell me about all the blokes you flirt with.'
Hermione flounced away without answering him, but he had put the idea in her mind, and it wasn't easy to dislodge.
Hermione left her clipboard behind when she departed the castle for Malfoy Manor. She had come to enjoy her riding lessons more than she would have thought possible, and she had developed a true affection for Firefly, whose manners were as nice as her gait was easy. Those of the beginning class who had proven themselves adept at staying in the saddle (not difficult to do with the use of Professor Mortelle's spell), at holding their reins properly, and who expressed an interest in doing so, were instructed by Mr Black, the Squib riding master, to attempt the trot.
Hermione frowned as she struggled to follow the instructions she was given, but she found the faster gait to be bumpy and uncomfortable—she was sure her bum would be much sorer at the end of this lesson! To add to her dissatisfaction, the advanced riders were riding over the upcoming hunt course, so she could not glance up at will to watch the Headmaster and his beautiful black stallion soaring through the air over the jumps as if they were possessed of one mind and one body.
Harry found that he had a knack for riding Duds. It didn't come to him as effortlessly as had broom riding, but he took to the trot easily, understanding how to post the trot and shifting up and down to smooth the ride for himself. He saw that Hermione was having a more difficult time of it. How on earth was a person supposed to ride side-saddle and rise on every other stride?
The intermediate riders were dismissed while the beginners were still riding, and Harry noticed Malfoy at the paddock fence, watching him. Reining up, he walked Duds in that direction.
Malfoy sat his horse with a casual ease, looking like something out of a Muggle period piece film in his Regency riding dress astride his sleek white horse. It bothered Harry how much he liked the Ferret when they were engaged in some sport or other together. Sunday evening they had stayed outside playing match after match of badminton, struggling to achieve supremacy over one another—but they were well-matched, and they had been forced to end the contest all but even on the overall score. They had been late to dinner, earning a scold from Hermione, and had ended the evening in the men's club, drinking too much of that port wine and playing together at a card game called piquet. The Ferret had won, so Harry was determined to get better at it.
'You're not terrible at riding,' Malfoy pronounced. 'Would you like to try something more fun than posting?'
Harry grinned at such unqualified praise. 'Yeah,' he said.
Malfoy dismounted and opened the far paddock gate, allowing Harry to ride Duds through. The white horse made a nickering sound at Duds.
'Al and Duds are friends,' Malfoy said in an offhand way, and from his pocket, he produced a small black thing, which he enlarged with an unspoken incantation. It was a helmet-like black hat. 'Wear this,' Malfoy instructed, handing it up.
Malfoy was the leader when they were on horseback; this was the tacit rule they followed, so Harry put on the hard black hat. 'Did you say your horse's name is Al?' he asked.
Malfoy swung easily into his saddle again, taking up his reins and turning his horse. 'It's really Alabaster Moon, but I call him Al—'
'—because it's shorter,' Harry finished for him. That made sense. Duds followed Al automatically, as if he knew Al and Malfoy were the leaders, and soon they were riding side by side.
'I don't know about you, Potter, but I'm bored with all this riding around in circles,' Malfoy said. 'I'm going to show you how much riding can be like flying.'
Harry couldn't repress his grin. 'Wicked,' he said approvingly.
Though she had not seen him since she'd arrived at the stables, Snape was waiting for Hermione when her lesson was over. He stood beside Apollyon, and as she approached, he came forward and took Firefly's bridle.
'Posting the trot must be near impossible on a side saddle,' he commented. 'Leticia was telling me about it—she said some ladies just suffer the bumping, but others go straight to the canter.'
Hermione wasn't sure what all the terms meant, but she enjoyed looking down at the Headmaster in his riding clothes with the sun on his hair, making it look almost blue in its black sheen, like a panther's pelt. Something about having his hair tied back—revealing the angle of his jaw rarely seen behind his curtain of hair—made him seem different to her. And when he seemed like a different person, it was not as distressing to her to be so confoundedly attracted to him.
'Would you like to try something different?' he asked her.
Hell yes, she would. A tumble in the hay with this Dark, slightly dangerous, unfamiliar wizard would make her day. And relieve a bit of stress.
But this train of thought was derailed when Leticia Mortelle walked over to smile up at Hermione, her riding crop tucked beneath her arm. 'Let me urge you to do it,' she said. 'You've worked very hard to make this venture succeed—now it's time to relax and enjoy it.' She stepped closer and spoke more quietly, as if to exclude the Headmaster from their conversation. 'Your participation, at this point, is more important than your continued governance of the event, Miss Granger. The ladies will look to you to see how to permit themselves to be immersed in the delights of the time period.' She turned to go, tossing over her shoulder, 'All work and no play makes Hermione a very dull girl!'
Hermione watched Professor Mortelle walk away, but when she looked back to the Headmaster, she saw that his gaze was focused on her.
'Please,' she said. 'Please—let's try something different.'
He took the leather lead he held in his free hand—what she had taken for his reins—and attached it to Firefly's bridle.
'We'll try the canter on the lunge line,' he said, and led her back into the paddock. 'When you're comfortable with it—later in the week—we can go for a ride across the fields.' He looked up at her, a slight smile on his face. 'I think you'll find it more ... engaging.'
Hermione felt her heart trip into a faster rhythm, but she only nodded and smiled in return. If they rode across the fields, they would be alone ... alone.
Anything might happen when a woman was alone with a man.
Ron went in to lunch with his new mates, Fin and Viktor, and the gaggle of girls who were always around them. But it was Romilda Vane who secured the seat beside him, and he was glad of that. It was heady stuff, this experience of being pursued by a pretty girl—an eminently shaggable girl—after the year of Hermione's neglect and lack of interest in him. Even so, he was a bit disturbed to see Hermione's place at the table empty—and even more so, to see the place from which Snape presided over the meals empty, as well.
Romilda, who had a sharp eye for details, noticed the direction of his thoughts. 'Hermione and the Headmaster must be having lunch somewhere else,' she said, watching Ron from the corner of her eye.
Ron cheered up a little. 'Yeah, maybe they're eating in his office—working on organisation type stuff.'
He addressed himself fully to his lunch until Romilda spoke again. 'Or maybe they're having a picnic lunch at the Manor. They have lovely gardens there, you know, and you could sign up for a box lunch to be eaten there for any day you wished—it was on the registration form.'
Instinctively, Ron reached for his schedule—had he and Hermione been scheduled to eat a picnic lunch today?—but of course, he didn't have a schedule. He'd lost it to Severus-bloody-Snape in the bloody poker game. He stabbed a roasted potato with his fork.
'I noticed Hermione isn't wearing her engagement ring anymore,' Romilda observed.
Ron hunched his shoulder, wishing Romilda would shut up. 'It wasn't an engagement ring. We had an understanding.'
Romilda giggled, and he thought she said something.
'What?' he said, rather more aggressively than he'd meant to sound.
'Nothing,' she said with a satisfied little smile.
But he was sure she had said, 'Oh Hermione understands, all right.'
After lunch, Gabrielle asked Neville to show the maze to her. 'I am told that you grew the hedges in less than ten days! How clever you must be!'
Neville blushed and pulled at his cravat, which seemed a bit tight. Dancing with Gabrielle in the class had been very exciting—touching her, even just her hand, was intoxicating—but it didn't make it any easier for him to take all of her admiration. Growing up, Gran had never had much good to say about Neville, and at school, the only teacher who really thought he did well was Professor Sprout. Strangers thought the Serpent Slayer was pretty cool, but Neville knew better. He had been talking a good game in his defiance of Voldemort, but he never would have managed to kill the snake if the Sorting Hat hadn't been forced onto his head, with the Sword of Gryffindor conveniently tucked inside.
Still he went with her out into the bright summer afternoon, and she tripped happily along beside him, an angel in a celestial blue dress trimmed in ecru lace. Other men watched them go with envy in their eyes, and Neville was man enough to be aware of that and to preen himself on it, even if he knew it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the uncritical heart of Gabrielle Delacour.
In the maze, he let her try to work it out, skipping down a promising avenue, only to find a dead end there and bouncing away to another with a ripple of delighted laughter. Neville went where she led, like a dog on a lead. When Gabrielle grew tired of the sport, he guided her unerringly to the heart of the maze, where he had planted a carefully planned, lovingly cultivated garden of rare beauty. Red roses, purple irises, yellow daisies, and pink peonies bloomed in profusion.
'Oh,' the French girl breathed, her awe apparent. 'Oh, Neville, it is so very beautiful.'
But his worshipful gaze was glued to her expressive face, and when her sky blue eyes met his, he answered her. 'No, Gabby—you are.'
Hermione soaked for a while in her bath, thankful as always for Savoir Smith's Sore Muscle Reliever. She closed her eyes and let her mind wander.
Having Snape's attention all for herself, with him in an instructive mood, was immensely satisfying; when he wasn't teaching a classroom full of hormonal adolescents, he was a good tutor, clear in his instructions and patient with her many errors. She had actually enjoyed the canter, once she'd got it straight in her head how she was to sit and to coordinate her movements with those of Firefly. And best of all, he had lifted her from her saddle again, and time had seemed to slow to a crawl as she held to his shoulders, her eyes locked with his, her tummy full of cavorting butterflies.
The moment had been broken by the boisterous arrival of Harry and Draco, leading their horses and exchanging jovial insults; Snape had stepped hurriedly away, as if discovered in wrong-doing. Hermione would have cheerfully slapped her best friend for the interruption, but it had done her heart good to see Harry so involved in something other than work—and happy at it.
Perhaps Harry and Draco would learn to be friends as she and Snape were learning to be friends. It would be a nice legacy to take away from the whole Regency Week experience, if she could simply stop herself from indulging in the persistent lustful thoughts that visions of Snape on horseback filled her mind with.
She ran one hand along her body, nipple pebbling beneath her palm before her fingers trailed past her ribcage, dipped into her navel, and disappeared beneath the warm water, intent upon ridding herself of the ache which owed nothing to her riding muscles.
Ron sat beneath the beech tree by the lake, drinking the cup of ale a passing house-elf had happily supplied him with. A warm presence was at his back, and he glanced up to see that Romilda was kneeling behind him, her breasts pressing against his back. She smiled when he looked at her, and she took his cup from him, drinking from it without asking permission.
'You're a saucy wench,' he informed her lazily, wondering how much of a tumble one could risk in daylight. Would a Notice Me Not Spell provide enough cover for him to teach her about what happened to naughty girls like her?
The wench in question gently bit the lobe of his ear, pressing more firmly still against his back. 'Oh, I can be saucier,' she whispered.
He turned to put his arms around her, but she backed away, laughing into his eyes. 'Not out here,' she told him, rising to her feet.
His reaction to her assault made it impossible for him to immediately stand as well. He shifted uncomfortably, a moue of annoyance on his lips. 'Where then?' he asked her.
Her eyebrows arched. 'I'm in the Gryffindor dormitories with a roomful of single girls,' she informed him. 'But don't you have a room to yourself?'
The girl had wasted no time nosing out that bit of information. 'Yeah,' he said, and she winked at him and walked away, her shapely bum swaying.
'Blimey,' he muttered, watching her go.
Sybill strolled along the path to the maze, her hand tucked into Xeno's arm. Luna had, at lunch, objected to the shade of her father's trousers—'But it's ugly, Daddy'—so Sybill had charmed her walking dress to a matching shade, done likewise with her parasol, and invited Xeno to stroll with her in the shrubbery.
The sheer audacity of it still amazed her. How could she be so daring? So very intrepid? But she had not been so lucky as to draw the admiration of any gentleman in more years than she cared to count, and this was her opportunity to enjoy it. Why, she'd been so euphoric before bed the night before, she had lain down without even thinking of her evening glass—Bottle, her mind whispered—of sherry.
'Tell me about yourself, dear lady,' Xeno said, with the complete attention peculiar to him, a trait she had seen few people display.
Sybill stared straight ahead, debating. Ought she to answer him truly? To share with this stranger the fascinating truth about herself? She was tempted, but did she dare? So many had laughed at her for it—they thought she didn't know, but of course she did—but they were unimportant people, their minds full of the mundane.
Something told her that this man would understand—appreciate, even—the truth about Sybill Patricia Trelawney.
'I am a Seer, dear sir—descended in an unbroken line from the great prophetess witch, Cassandra of Troy.'
He stared down at her, his protuberant eyes wide and believing. 'I knew it!' he exclaimed softly. 'I knew it, as surely as the Crumple-Horned Snorkack runs through the tundra of subarctic northern Sweden!'
Sybill peered at him, all a-tremble with triumph. 'I knew it!' she echoed softly. 'I knew you would have the Mind to understand!'
His hand covered hers, tightening slightly over her gloved fingers. 'Tell me everything, dear lady!'
And so she did, pouring her accomplishments, triumphs, and slights into his willing ears, and he absorbed every word of her gospel, according it unquestioningly the significance of unvarnished truth.
Hermione dressed with particular care for dinner, finding that her after-bath nap had refreshed her so much that she didn't even need make up to brighten her complexion. Everything was going very well, and diverting her mind from obsessing over details to revelling in enjoyment was becoming easier.
She went down to the drawing room, where everyone was gathered to enjoy an aperitif. She smiled at the number of ladies fluttering their fans and responded with unfeigned delight to the greetings she received. The Headmaster was there ahead of her, wearing a coat that, with each passing evening, seemed to darken ever more, to the point that it now appeared to be midnight blue. She was gratified when she saw him and realised he was watching her. Had he done so ever since she entered? Had he been waiting for her? She thrilled to the possibility, trying to remember if she had ever felt like this before. When she was fifteen, and the world famous Viktor Krum had sought her out? When she was eighteen, and Ron had finally scraped up the courage to kiss her?
No, she had never felt quite like this before.
She took a glass of madeira wine from a passing elf, and when it became clear that she was coming to him, Snape met her halfway.
'You appear none the worse for wear for your riding adventure,' he commented quietly.
She smiled into her wine, thinking, It's marvellous what a warm bath will do for a girl after a hard ride! but she didn't reply to him.
A shriek of laughter from across the room drew everyone's attention, and they looked to see Pansy Parkinson hanging upon Viktor's arm, gazing up at him as if he were her dependence and delight. But it was Romilda Vane whose behaviour Hermione noted. The buxom brunette stood with her arms about Ron's waist, a position completely against the mores of the Regency time—no one would have engaged in that sort of public display—and Ron had an arm about her shoulders.
A week ago, seeing Ron with another woman would have infuriated her. Even yesterday, she had gone to bed early rather than put herself through the misery of watching him flirt. But now she felt curiously detached from him and his actions; not as if he were a stranger, for she would never be that separated from him or Harry—not after all they'd done together. No, it was more like seeing someone you'd known from school misbehaving in public—a weary sort of disgust, but no wrenching emotion.
Snape spoke into her ear, his warm breath stirring the curls at her temple against her cheek. 'Does it distress you to see him so? Shall I take you into the garden?'
Hermione turned to face him—turned her back on Romilda and Ron—and gave a slight shake of her head. 'Not at all,' she assured him, sipping her wine.
George sat on a stone bench in Neville's rose garden, his director's book in his hands. He had assigned all the parts for their little production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, except for Puck. None of the men had the right feel for the part, and it had to be cast properly or none of it would work. He sucked upon the tip of his Sugar Quill, which had been flavoured with Firewhisky—a little experiment of his, which he was in talks with Honeydukes to license for sale in Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. He knew whom he wanted for the part, but he had his doubts about getting his way.
Luna came out of the house into the garden, looking very pretty in a jonquil yellow evening gown. Another girl might have tarried by the French doors, gazing at the flowers or the sky, waiting to be approached, but not Luna. She walked straight to him and sat down on the bench beside him. That was one of the things he liked best about her—she didn't act girly all the time. Girly-acting women were exhausting to be around, and George just didn't have the patience for it, these days.
'Taking a break from breaking hearts in there?' he asked her with a sly wink.
Luna regarded him with a serious expression. Come to think of it, Luna seldom joked around, which was one of George's raisons d'etre—and even so, he liked being around her. She was the most restful female he knew.
'You don't have to do that,' she said earnestly, her manner open, unguarded.
George frowned. 'Do what?' he asked.
'Entertain me, George,' she said solemnly, and reaching out, she took his hand.
Then you have no use for me at all, he thought forlornly.
His mind scrambled for a comeback, but George didn't know what to say. He and Fred had come into the world cracking jokes, and entertaining the room had been their modus operandi for as long as he could remember. But Fred had been gone now for four years, and though the pain had dulled, the empty space was always right beside—as well as inside—him, echoing and bone-deep lonely.
Withdrawing his hand, he gave hers a little pat. 'All righty, then. Let's go eat.'
And without another word, Luna serenely accompanied him inside.
Ron sat with Romilda at dinner, and he couldn't help but be distracted by her square-cut neckline, which exposed so much of her creamy bosom. Even so, he found himself watching Snape and Hermione at the head of the table. Hermione never once looked down the table at Ron; she seemed to be riveted by her own conversation. And she was smiling—laughing, even. Ron hadn't seen Hermione lighten up that much in months. What the hell was Snape saying to her?
Romilda ran a fingertip over the top of Ron's hand, sending a shock straight to his groin—not really the sort of thing a bloke wants to have happen at dinner with so many people. Hastily, he moved his hand out of her way.
She leant towards him, providing an even clearer view down the bodice of her gown. 'What time?' she murmured.
He darted a glance at Harry, wondering if he'd heard, but Harry was talking to Penny Clearwater. 'Better not, tonight,' he answered her.
'No?' Her lower lip protruded—a pretty pout.
Ron looked away from her. 'No.'
There was dancing 'practice' again after dinner—really just an excuse for flirtation, it seemed to Ron—and the theatrical people worked on the play, and the older witches and wizards separated to their particular pursuits. Hermione, though, was the life of the party, sparkling and bubbly. She had the house-elves set up tables for parlour games, and it was rather disgusting to watch her playing at a game called Speculation with Snape at her elbow, full of advice. Romilda divided her attentions amongst the other single blokes, but Parkinson was dominating all of Viktor's time, and Fin was doing his best to talk to Penny—but it seemed to Ron as if Penny was watching Hermione and Snape, too.
Finally, he left the drawing room and went in search of the men's clubroom. Perhaps a few drinks and some thinking—or card playing—would help him work it all out.
George finally invaded the men's clubroom to run down his quarry. The target was sitting at a small round table with Harry, playing cards.
'Might I have a word, Draco?'
Malfoy turned his head with exaggerated surprise. George half expected him to employ his quizzing glass, as his father had done, but he simply sneered.
'What do you want, Weasley?'
Harry lifted his glass to George. 'Have a drink?' he asked.
'I want you to be part of the play,' George said to Malfoy, ignoring Harry. 'I want you to play Puck. It requires a certain ... whimsical melancholy.'
Malfoy's nearly white brows drew together over his eyes, as if he were annoyed, but George could tell he was interested. 'I am familiar with Shakespeare, you twit,' Malfoy said disdainfully.
'No one else could do it, mate,' George urged. 'Think about it.'
Malfoy shrugged and played a card. 'Maybe I will.'
Harry chortled. 'You, Ferret? In a play?'
Malfoy directed a sneer at Harry, but Harry was giggling too much to notice.
'It's your turn, Scar Head,' Malfoy snapped.
George could have hugged Harry. That put a seal on the deal!
'Two o'clock tomorrow, Malfoy, in Violet's antechamber—I'll have a house-elf drop the script in your room.'
'Go away, Weasley,' Malfoy snarled, and George, having bagged his prey, was happy to do it, whistling as he went.
Severus saw the girl to her room that night, feeling the unfamiliar brightness rising in himself and doing all he could to ignore it, if not deflate it. She had come to him in her sea foam green dress, stones shined to resemble emeralds at her throat above the breasts he tried very hard not to notice—come straight to him, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a young, beautiful woman to seek him out for nothing but the pleasure of his company. There were many things of which he had to acquit Hermione Granger, little though he liked to acknowledge it to himself; one of those things was any sort of ulterior motive where he was concerned. Unlike the women he had bedded since the war ended, this was a witch who had no interest whatsoever in his so-called heroism, his imaginary social position, or his purported secret stash of gold. No, this vital woman looked at him and saw only Severus—saw him more clearly, perhaps, than anyone had done in years.
She smiled at him. 'It's been a fun day,' she said. 'Thank you for the riding lesson—that may have been the best part.'
Her eyes were soft, like the velvety petal of a flower, her lips particularly plump and lovely—and he was losing his fucking mind.
Stepping back, he bowed. 'It was my pleasure,' he said woodenly.
A shadow passed over her face, as if she were disappointed—or hurt. He clenched his jaw.
'Well,' she said uncertainly, 'I suppose I'd better get to bed.'
'Good night,' he said tersely.
When she opened the door, the cat slinked into the hallway and twined about Severus' ankles, meowing.
'Stop it, Crooks!' she said, bending to pick him up. 'You'll get hairs all over his trousers!'
Severus thought of the chair in the next room already covered with ginger fur, but he said nothing.
She held the cat in her arms and gave him a rueful smile. 'Good night!'
He bowed again, and finally, she went into her room, closing the door behind her. He sagged with relief, briefly resting his forehead on her doorjamb before entering his room and going directly to the drinks trolley. The brandy was medicinal tonight, rather than for pleasure, and he downed it in two quick swallows, like a potion for illness.
Then he was in the chair by the wall, leaning forward with his elbows on his legs, his hands dangling uselessly. He had accomplished his goal—had pushed Weasley so far away that she barely noticed the whelp any longer—but now she was fully his responsibility, and Severus was finding it very difficult going. How could simply keeping company with an attractive young woman be such a chore? If he were her contemporary—a thick twenty-something with nothing in his head but sex and sport—it would be easier, but as a mature man, he saw the traps and hazards inherent in their current course, and those realities filled him with foreboding.
With his forehead pressed against the wall—the wall of her bedchamber—he allowed himself to remember her that morning in the classroom, throwing up her hands in protest at his pet name for her—riding about the paddock at the end of his lead rein, taking his instruction—seeking him out before dinner—sparkling at the games table—and he had to suppress a groan of misery.
Then he heard her, faintly, and it seemed to him as if she were talking to her familiar, her tone playful. Then there was quiet, and he waited—for what he didn't know—only knowing that he would not sleep until she did.
It was in the silence that he heard it—faint again, but unmistakeable.
He didn't know where it came from, the spell which rose to his lips—it was one he had learnt as a firstie, to make communication from one dormitory to the one adjacent possible after everyone was abed—but he spoke the incantation, then said her name.
She squeaked—he had to smile at the sound—and there was the sound of rustling, as if we were looking wildly around her room.
'I'm in my room, but I heard you say my name. Do you ... need something?'
She giggled then, and he smirked, shaking his head.
'I feel like I'm breaking curfew,' she said.
'I did not mean to intrude,' he said. 'I will use the counter spell now. Sleep well.'
'No, wait!' she said, her voice slightly breathless. 'Talk to me.'
He was embarrassed, but not unwilling. Pillow talk, minus the pillows, had not previously come his way. 'What shall I say?'
There was a beat of silence, and in the quiet, he heard her yawn. He smirked again. She was obviously tired enough to sleep, and did not need a conversation with him to keep her awake.
'Tell me how you came to own Apollyon,' she invited, her voice now sounding drowsy and cosy—the way Severus imagined one's lover (wife his unhelpful brain provided) might sound as she drifted off to sleep in one's arms.
'It is not a pleasant tale,' he said, frowning, his forehead pressed hard to the wall. 'I made the Unbreakable Vow to Draco's mother when Lucius went to prison. I promised to watch over Draco. After the war, when Narcissa released me from the Vow, she and Lucius gave me the stallion. It was unnecessary, but they were insistent.'
She was silent, and he wondered if she slept. Then she spoke, and he knew she had considered her words before she said them. 'It was necessary to them, though. They felt they owed you a heavy debt, and they paid it the way that seemed most generous to them—with something they knew you would cherish.'
He stared at his hands, and unconsciously, lifted one to press against the wall. There was something in what she said—something he had not considered before: that the stallion had been not a convenient article the Malfoys had had to hand when they wished to give a gift, but a carefully chosen bequest given to honour the receiver.
'You may be right,' he conceded softly.
A tiny, breathless laugh. 'I wish I had that admission recorded on audio tape,' she said.
He chuckled. She was a minx; there was no question about it.
Then the reverie was shattered by the sound of pounding.
'Ron,' she said, and there was no laughter or softness in her tone.
Severus sat up straight. 'I'll perform the counter spell now,' he said. 'Good night.'
'No, don't!' she answered.
''Mione?' Weasley called, sounding intoxicated. ''Mione, let me in. We have to say sorry and make up before something terrible happens.'
Severus sat like a stone, aware that the palms of his hands were slick with sweat, as if something momentous were about to occur, something in which he had no say at all.
The girl did not answer, and the pounding resumed. 'I know you're in there! I heard you talking to Crooks. Open the fucking door!' And he pounded again.
The silence was so complete Severus could hear the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece, something of which he was never aware—but each second felt like an hour as he held his breath, waiting to hear what Hermione Granger would do in the face of her former boyfriend's pleas.
The next voice to be heard belonged to neither Granger nor Weasley—it was Potter.
'Come on, mate—I could hear you shouting from the stairs. Leave her alone. Now isn't the time to try to talk to her.'
Severus gritted his teeth. He would have preferred to hear the girl send Weasley packing—wouldn't that have been more definitive?—but at the very least, the idiot would plague her no more that night.
He inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly.
'I just wanted to see if you were still there.' She sounded almost apologetic. 'Sorry for all that.'
'You are not responsible for his choices,' he replied quietly. 'But you should sleep now, don't you think?'
She yawned. 'I suppose so.'
'Good night, then ... Milady,' he said.
There was a sound which might have been a sigh of contentment. ''Night, Severus,' she answered.
He cast the counter spell and sagged again to his former position, forehead pressed to the wall.
What the hell was he going to do?
Hermione moved her pillow closer to the wall and stroked it lightly with her fingertips. Severus was just on the other side—thinking of her, perhaps—her new friend and confidante. Those qualities were far more important than the ones that had been getting her blood up, lately.
She smiled into the darkness and settled into sleep.
Author's Note: Internet resources on the language of fans are very much at variance with one another, but it seems a universally accepted fact that placing the sticks of the fan upon one's lips meant 'Kiss me'.