For Hogwarts: A Regency Gamble
Tuesday, August 6, 2002
Morning to Evening
Ron went down to breakfast in a hung-over, sombre state of mind. His head was pounding, he had slept poorly, but most of all, he felt like a failure. Hermione wouldn't even talk to him. He had loved her since he was eleven years old—half his life!—and now he had lost her.
Or did she lose me? he thought, eschewing the food and pouring a cup of strong, black tea instead. Dad says maybe I loved the idea of having a girlfriend more than the actual person. But she's the cleverest witch I know, and no other girl can ever understand about all we lived through the way she does.
He carried the tea into the drawing room, which was deserted. He opened the French doors and walked out into the garden Neville had planted there, to give the castle a country-house feel. With the sun shining down on him, he drank his tea and puzzled over the facts. Did he love Hermione? Hell yeah, he did—but was it the lover kind of love? Harry always said he loved Hermione like a sister, but Ron had shagged her—and a bloke didn't shag his sister.
Draining his cup, he set it on the stone bench, and putting his hands in his pockets, he began to walk.
His dad had pointed out that a man didn't always marry his first love. Not that Ron was interested in marriage—not now, he was too young for that—but one day he wanted a wife and kids and a little house near Ottery St Catchpole. Hermione had never been too happy with that plan. She didn't want to live too near his family because she thought they'd never have privacy. And she didn't want a large family. Maybe one child, she said, when she was settled in her career and they could afford a nanny to look after the baby when she returned to work—but that bothered Ron. A witch was supposed to stay home and raise her children, educate them until they went to Hogwarts ... Hermione's priorities seemed askew, and always had done, to Ron's way of thinking.
Still, he remembered how they'd been before she got so obsessed with work—happy. No one could say they hadn't been happy. Going to work, coming home to change clothes, then down the pub for a bite and a pint, hanging out, drinking with friends ... and back to her flat for a shag. It had been bloody ideal.
Then she'd got her promotion at work, and before he knew it, their lives were ruled by her job and work projects. It made him angry all over again just to think about it.
He stopped, his jaw set. Dad had told him in his most serious voice that any girl would resent being wagered in a poker game, and not all Ron's arguments about how it was just a parchmentand not a girl he'd wagered had swayed his father's opinion. Dad would have none of it.
Fine. If Ron had done wrong, he was willing to swallow his pride and do the right thing.
Now all he had to do was figure out what that thing was. He stared out over the lake and thought for a long time. At length, he nodded. It seemed to him as if there were times when all a bloke could do to prove his love to his witch was ... something spectacularly stupid ... and he was just the one qualified to do it.
Hermione slept deeply and well, with no disturbing dreams. When she woke, light was streaming into her room from the high windows, and she jerked upright with alarm—until she remembered her new project. She wasn't running the show anymore, because the show was running itself. No, she was participating in the Regency Week—immersing herself in Jane Austen's world—and that meant she could be the last one down to breakfast sometimes, instead of the first.
She stretched and went to the basin on her dressing table to splash water on her face. She was filled with an unfamiliar sensation, and she could not name it, but she welcomed it. This feeling made the world seem brighter, the colours more vibrant, and the prospect of the day ahead like a smorgasbord from which she could choose her delights.
She took up her comb and began to arrange her hair, liking what she saw in the looking glass. She stuck her tongue out at her reflection and only giggled when the mirror reprimanded her.
'If you have no respect for yourself,' it complained, 'at least have some consideration for my feelings!'
Hermione turned away to her wardrobe. 'You're a mirror—you don't have feelings!'
She dressed herself, slipped her feet into the blue kid shoes which were already showing signs of wear—how had the Regency folk kept their things clean?—and opened her door. She stared down to the end of the corridor, where shadows concealed a door to the Headmaster's room. Was Severus still there? Would it be too forward for her to knock to find out?
After an internal struggle, she decided it would not be too forward for Hermione, but for Miss Granger, the proper Regency lady, it would be unthinkable. So she went down to breakfast feeling the urge to hum a happy tune as she went.
On the third floor landing, she met up with Penny. 'You're late this morning,' Hermione observed.
Penny's lips pressed together. 'I was just thinking the same thing about you.'
Hermione was surprised by her tone. 'Are you upset with me?' she asked.
Penny shrugged, a gesture which did not sit easily on her—Penny had always been so friendly and ... tractable. Looking straight ahead as they descended the staircase, Penny said, 'You dominate the Headmaster's time and all his attention! I thought this would be my chance to get to know him, but you won't let me!'
Hermione felt her first unpleasant emotion of the morning, and it made her angry that such a thing had to happen. 'He's my escort, Penny,' she pointed out in a slightly sharp tone. 'I'm sorry if that's inconvenient for you, but it is what it is. You'll have to pursue him later, when Regency Week is over. Why don't you just ask him to dinner or something?'
Penny looked more put out than ever. 'If that were an easy thing to do, I'd have done it already!' she cried.
They had reached the Great Hall, and without waiting for Hermione's reply, Penny brushed past her and entered, pasting a smile on her face. Hermione stayed in the Entrance Hall for a moment, mourning the passing of her euphoria, and at the hands of the least likely person she could imagine. Could Penny be jealous of her?
The very idea was ludicrous—Penny was taller and thinner and prettier and blonder—but at least it made her chuckle.
'I am happy to find you in such good spirits,' a silky voice murmured from behind her.
Hermione turned quickly to face the Headmaster, suddenly prey to a number of reactions—her heart sped up, her tummy swooped, her hands began to tremble, and breath caught in her throat. She swallowed and scrambled inwardly to find her composure. Good grief, all this turmoil for the likes of Snape?
Severus, her brain reminded her, and before she could stop it, a smile touched her lips. She lifted her eyes to his and found them watching her intently. Yes, for Severus—her friend and partner and escort—there was nothing wrong with becoming a bit flustered by the attentions of an attractive man. It was quite Regency-esque, after all.
And with her acceptance of her reaction, her bliss was back, as simply as that.
'Did you rest well?' she asked him, the intimacy of their talk the night before palpable between them.
He nodded. 'As you did. I don't need to ask, for the roses in your cheeks tell your tale.'
Without asking, he took her hand and led her into the Great Hall. Ron was at table, sitting between Romilda and Gabrielle, but he didn't seem pleased about it. In fact, he was watching Hermione and Severus with a puckered brow.
Well, he wouldn't dampen her pleasure in the morning or in her company—she wouldn't permit him to. Being with Ron—talking with him—had never given her the feeling of comfort and safety she had experienced the night before, sharing confidences through the wall with the man at her side.
Seeing Hermione look up at Snape—Snape!—like that spelled the absolute end to Ron. He couldn't permit this to go on for another day. The slimy git was bewitching her somehow—perhaps with a potion in her drinks—and it was Ron's duty to protect Hermione from him, if she didn't have the capacity to protect herself.
Romilda laid a hand upon his arm. 'It's hard to see an ex with someone new,' she said quietly. 'I know how you feel.'
Ron glared down at her. 'You don't know the first thing about it.'
Romilda bit her lip and leant closer to him. 'Oh Ron, can't you see it? She's just terrible to you! She's never appreciated you properly—no, not even when you were at school!'
Ron felt his gut twist with self-loathing. Maybe Hermione hadn't been the best girlfriend, but he hadn't been the best boyfriend either—and if she was angry with him now, it was his own damn fault—and it was bloody well time for him to do something about it.
He stood from the table, allowing Romilda's hand to fall from his arm. 'I know you're just trying to be nice,' he told her, 'but you don't know anything about it.'
Stiffening his spine, he marched down the table to where Snape sat at the head, a bowl of porridge and a cup of black coffee before him. A very pinched-looking Penelope Clearwater sat on his left with Dennis Creevey beside her, shovelling his food in with great enthusiasm. Hermione was on Snape's right, putting strawberry jam on her toast, and none of them noticed Ron until he spoke.
'I would like a word, Snape,' he said coldly.
When the Headmaster responded, it was in a lazy way. 'Certainly, Mr Weasley—I assume you wish for this word to be private?'
Snape let his gaze move to Hermione, then back to Ron.
'That's right,' Ron confirmed.
'Very well,' the Headmaster said. 'I'll be in the clubroom after breakfast to read the newspaper. You may find me there.'
Snape's tone was dismissive, but Hermione spoke then, detaining Ron. 'That won't work,' she objected, addressing her remarks to Snape. 'After breakfast is dancing class.'
Snape arched one eyebrow in that insolent way he had, but Hermione didn't seem to mind it. 'Do you mean to show up to dancing class today, then?' he drawled.
At that, Hermione looked rather like the cat that got the cream. Were they flirting with one another? Ron's hands fisted.
'Of course I do,' Hermione replied, her eyes twinkling.
Blimey. When was the last time Ron had seen her so playful?
'Well then, Weasley, I suppose it will have to be after dancing class,' Snape said, but he was still looking at Hermione.
'No!' Hermione objected. 'After dancing is riding, and we have to work on my canter if I'm ever going to get to ride with you!'
Ron felt as if he had stepped into some sort of alternate universe; the entire exchange he was witnessing—was participating in—was surreal. There was no other way to describe it.
Snape's expression changed—Ron couldn't have said exactly how, because he certainly didn't smile—but his eyes seemed to warm up, somehow.
'Of course,' Snape murmured, and Hermione giggled. Her eyes met Snape's and it was obvious to anyone within retching distance that they were sharing a moment.
Ron fought back the urge to throw up. Penny looked like she was going to cry.
When Snape had the time to look away from Hermione, he turned to Ron again. 'I suppose it will have to be after lunch,' he said. Then, with a comical pause he looked to Hermione. 'If that will be quite convenient for you, Mil ... Miss Granger.'
Ron glared suspiciously at Snape. He had been about to call her something else—Ron was sure of it. And the satisfied smile on Hermione's face—the one she was trying to hide in her teacup—meant that she had just scored some sort of point.
'Quite convenient, sir,' she murmured.
It took all of Ron's home-training to keep from yanking Snape out of his chair just to knock him down. When he could trust himself to speak, he nodded and said, 'Right. I'll see you in the clubroom after lunch.'
He turned to walk away from them, fighting the urge to look back. He was worried that if he did, he would see them laughing together. That wouldn't have been so bad if he thought they were laughing about him—but he had a sick feeling that they weren't. In fact, he was fairly sure he had just made a very poor third in that entire conversation. His presence had not been necessary at all, except as a backboard against which Snape and Hermione could launch test shots at one another.
His girlfriend wasn't using another man to make him jealous. She wasn't thinking about him at all.
Severus danced the minuet with Hermione under McGonagall's beady eye in dancing class. He thought he had never seen so much bowing and curtseying at one time, and he would have been heartily bored if his partner had not been so happy in the exercise. There was something changed about her that he could not put his finger on. She was clearly in better spirits than she'd been even twenty-four hours before. At some point during the day, yesterday, Hermione Granger had decided she was going to enjoy her one week of Regency period activities, and she had proceeded to do so. It was a remarkable change—a damned captivating one, at that.
When the dancing class was over, Hermione hurried away to change into her riding habit, but Minerva detained Severus, backing him neatly into a corner. How the hell did the woman manage what no Death Eater had ever been able to do?
'Have you chosen your reading for tonight, Severus?' she demanded, making it sound as if he were a firstie delinquent on his homework.
'What reading?' he challenged, hearing himself sound as sulky as one of their students.
'Tonight is the dramatic reading and musicale evening,' McGonagall reminded him, her tone acidic enough to leave holes in woollen fabric. 'It has been on your schedule for two months! I know, because I put it there.'
Severus craned his neck to look over her shoulder, searching for an escape route.
Her voice rose in volume, and Severus began to worry that the class stragglers who had yet to quit the Trophy Room would hear the Headmaster being dressed down by his Deputy Head.
'You assured me, Headmaster, that if I lacked participants, I could rely on you for—'
Severus erupted, hissing words like magma. 'All right, all right, old woman! Leave it alone! I'll do it. Now step back.'
McGonagall crossed her arms over her chest, looking very satisfied with herself, and held her ground. 'I knew you would read,' she said smugly.
Losing patience, Severus came determinedly forward into her personal space, and at last, she retreated, letting him move past her.
'And remember—nothing after 1820!' she called after him.
'I know the dates of the Regency,' he muttered angrily, making good his escape from the Trophy Room.
Harry skived off dancing class—he skived off it every day. The last thing he needed was for some girl to think he was paying attention to her and get ideas about The Boy Who Lived. Harry wasn't conceited enough to think anyone would find him particularly irresistible, but The Boy Who Lived—that mythical, heroic figure—was a different matter altogether.
Instead, he changed into his riding clothes and went through the Floo to Malfoy Manor.
Trailing down the path to the stables, he marvelled at how well he come to like horses—and riding them—in such a short time. Of course, he supposed that riding thoroughbreds at a privately owned stable was different than hiring a horse of doubtful disposition in Hyde Park at ninety-nine quid an hour. And having someone knowledgeable to show you the ropes—like Sirius' Squib cousin, Horologium Black ... or Malfoy, who wasn't half-bad as a companion for galloping across the open fields or playing at sports or card games—well, having someone to teach you and keep you out of trouble was priceless.
The main stable block was straight ahead, but to the side was a smaller structure, built in a similar style. Harry had always wondered what was in there, so he went to the partially open door and peered inside. The smell of the horses, their straw, both clean and soiled, was exactly the same as the main building—which meant there must be more horses within.
He slipped inside and saw that the stalls here were much larger. Did they keep more than one animal in each box? He moved down the broad aisle between stalls, and a couple of horses stuck their heads over their stall doors and nickered at him—a sound which always made him grin. But when he reached the furthest stall he drew in a horrified breath.
The animal in the stall had a beautiful, dainty head, a vibrantly red coat, and four white stockings. But its middle section was enormous, bloated—distended to the point that Harry felt sure he saw something moving around in there.
'Did you get lost, Potter?'
Harry turned to Malfoy, almost relieved to see him. 'Draco—what's wrong with this horse?'
The Ferret's proper name came out of his mouth without him thinking about it, and for once, it didn't seem important to have shown weakness ... erm, friendliness.
Malfoy smirked, but it wasn't an unpleasant expression, for it swiftly became a chuckle as he walked up beside Harry. 'There's nothing wrong with Perse—is there, girl?' He opened the stall door and went in to the mare, taking hold of her halter and stroking her muzzle.
Harry followed hesitantly, but Malfoy gave him a grey-eyed look he couldn't interpret, then grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand to the mare's neck.
'There's nothing wrong with her—she's breeding and due to drop her foal any day,' Draco explained, returning his attention to the horse and keeping his eyes firmly on her.
Harry shifted from one foot to the other, thinking that he was standing too close to Malfoy—but if Malfoy wasn't bothered by it, then he wouldn't be, either. It was really rather warm—he was fairly sure there was perspiration on his brow—and it was very hard for him to think. But he forced himself to concentrate.
Making a mighty effort, he said, 'What's her name? Purse? Like a handbag?'
'Well, her name is Persephone, but I—'
Now it was Harry's turn to chuckle, and he slanted a sidelong glance at Malfoy. 'Don't tell me—I know the drill. Perse is shorter.'
But Malfoy was already looking at him, and when their eyes met, the box stall seemed suddenly smaller and quite airless. Now, in addition to being unable to move, Harry was also unable to look away. He was frozen in place, one hand repeatedly stroking the soft chestnut mare, when his impulse was to touch Malfoy—Draco—instead. The silken white-blond hair looked as if it would be much softer to the touch than the horse's coat ...
The mare tossed her head, butting Malfoy and interrupting the staring contest. Malfoy laughed and gave Perse one final pat. 'No sugar for you, my girl—you'll want to get back into racing trim when this little stranger makes his entrance to the world.'
Harry recognised the escape for what it was and backed out of the stall. Turning, he walked from the building into the sunlight again, where the interlude with Malfoy began to assume a dream-like quality in his mind.
Good. At this rate, he'd have forgotten all about it by lunch time.
Severus retired to the clubroom after lunch to meet with Weasley, but he would have much preferred to continue in the company of the surprisingly fascinating Miss Granger. A single Murus Perlucidus Spell, simple enough to be mastered by a clever firstie, and he had graduated in her esteem from tolerated presence to cherished friend ... and a friend, moreover, with whom she chose to flirt.
It was a marvellous, novel experience to become the focus of a desirable woman's attentions. Not content just to accept his escort, she now sought him out at every turn. Upon entering a room, she looked for him, and finding him, she came directly to his side. What was a man to think—to feel—about such preferential treatment? And even then, she was not satisfied by his mere presence. No, she was all womanly smiles and beguiling glances—all silvery laughs, trilling up his spine, and smouldering brown eyes, kindling his blood.
Dalliance with Hermione Granger chanced the same chaotic danger as trifling with Fiendfyre—but even the sanest of men will hazard the heat after long enough alone, in the cold.
Severus sat at the table furthest from the door, near a window emitting filtered light into the rather dim clubroom. Two older wizards sat near the hearth, their pipes puffing, a wizarding chess game between them. Near the middle of the room, in an armchair facing away from Severus, another wizard sat with a well-thumbed edition of Wizard Weekly spread open on his knees, in an apparent doze, his hat pulled low over his face.
Weasley entered the room and came directly to Severus, a look of grim determination on his freckled face. 'I won't beat around the bush, Snape,' he said.
Severus nodded, biting back the host of sarcastic replies which sprang to his tongue. Miss Granger would not thank him for inflaming the boy by challenging his ... limited brain power.
When Severus didn't speak, Weasley said, 'I'll have that schedule back from you now—enough's enough.'
Severus felt a flash of alarm—could he, in good conscience, refuse the boy?—quickly supplanted by a wave of irritation, compounded when Weasley held out his hand, palm up.
'Why would I do that, Weasley?'
The question seemed to stump the whelp. His arm slowly lost altitude as he pondered an answer.
'Because she's my girlfriend!'
Severus flicked imaginary lint from the sleeve of his coat. 'No more so than she was when you wagered her away,' he murmured.
The boy slapped his palm on the table top, and Severus slowly raised his eyes to see the reddening, pugnacious face scrunched up in fury.
'She doesn't want you around!' Weasley squawked. 'She's only doing it to get up my nose!'
Severus shrugged. 'Perhaps she is. But why would I surrender the schedule to you? What's in it for me?'
Once again, the boy seemed knocked off course, as if he were unable to maintain his equilibrium in the face of Severus' mighty verbal blows.
What a lightweight.
Under the burden of his striving thoughts, Weasley collapsed into the chair opposite Severus. 'Well ... what would you want?'
Severus cultivated an expression of boredom. 'I did not initiate this conversation,' he pointed out.
Weasley picked up a page from the box of writing paper and quills provided at the tables, so that the gentlemen might keep up their correspondence whilst on holiday. He dipped the quill in ink and paused with it poised over the parchment. 'I'll write an IOU,' he said. 'How much do you want?'
'I will not accept an IOU from you, Weasley, not now, nor at any point in the future. I wish you will desist from offering them at every turn.' There—that would burn the whelp's pride.
Weasley threw the quill to the table. 'Damn you, Snape! Fine! I'll duel you for it!'
Severus almost began to enjoy himself. It was baiting, yes, but it was not a confrontation of his seeking—surely Miss Granger could not hold him responsible for it if Weasley complained to her ...
He gave a thin smile. 'I thought you wished to have a serious discussion,' he said.
No, the boy was not entirely dim. He understood the taunt.
'I'm perfectly serious, you arrogant git! I could take you!'
Severus stood, taking care to smooth his long-tailed coat. 'You could not "take" me, Mr Weasley, in a duel of wands, swords, pistols—or wits.' He bowed in correct Regency style—just low enough to show his disdain.
Turning to go, he remained hyper-vigilant; he fully expected an outburst to follow him from the room. But it was not a shout from Weasley which made him look back—it was a self-contained chuckle.
'A duel of wits? What an excellent idea,' the boy said. And standing, he strode to stand tall before Severus. 'Headmaster Snape, I challenge you to a duel of wits—also known as a game of Wizarding Chess—for possession of the schedule of events with my name on it.'
The entire episode ran through Severus' mind at the speed of light as he stared into Weasley's smug blue eyes. How could he have been so stupid? He might have simply refused to part with the schedule and walked away, but instead he had attempted to rub the boy's nose in his failure, and in so doing, he had set himself up for certain defeat.
As if it had been yesterday, he could hear Dumbledore's voice saying, for the best-played game of chess Hogwarts has seen in many years... and that had been when Weasley was twelve years old! The boy could only have improved his game with the passing of the years.
Severus could repudiate the suggestion—carry it off by saying he would not be party to such a thing—but he was no coward. The notion was a brilliant one—a master stroke—and the courageous wizard would graciously acknowledge being outwitted. Damnation—outwitted before he even sat down to the chessboard! Severus was no slouch at chess, but Weasley had even been able to outplay Dumbledore at the game, a feat Severus had never matched.
Drawing his gloves from his pocket, he pulled them on his hands, his mind racing. He would meet Ronald Weasley for the proposed chess match, or he would never be able to live with himself.
'I accept your challenge, Mr Weasley,' he said calmly. 'I am engaged with activities until this evening, after the reading—would nine o'clock be convenient for you?'
'Nine is good,' Weasley said. 'Where will we play? Your office?'
Good God, in front of Dumbledore and all the Headmasters' portraits? Not in this lifetime.
'Let us meet in the library,' Severus said. 'We will have privacy there, I should think.'
'The library, then,' Weasley agreed.
Severus feigned difficulty with one of his gloves—he was loath to quit the room whilst Weasley remained, and the redhead had meandered over to the chess-playing old men. The boy greeted the combatants, studied the board, then whispered something to one of the players. The recipient of his suggestion made a move.
'Check mate!' the victor cried, exciting a storm of protest from his opponent. But Weasley paid them no mind—he was smiling at Severus.
No one watching Dennis Creevey take his hat from over his face and scurry out the clubroom door would have suspected him of having a deep thought in his head—and in many ways, it was true—Dennis was not a young man much given to heavy-duty cogitation.
Even so, he recognised trouble when he (deliberately) eavesdropped on it, and he was alarmed. Someone in a position of power needed to be told in what peril Ron Weasley stood, and Dennis was the only one who could save him from sure death—for what else could be the result of a duel with Headmaster Snape?
Dennis had meant only to pretend to doze, but it was no wonder that he might have dropped off in the dim, cool clubroom, for the chair had been quite comfortable, and the Headmaster frequently spoke so softly you had to strain to hear him ... but Ron had been loud enough, even if Dennis had been rather disoriented when he was startled out of sleep.
It was after lunch, and the inhabitants of the castle had scattered in all directions; many of the play cast-members were practicing their lines in the antechamber, some of the older ladies were in their sitting room, but the person whom Dennis was seeking was out of doors—he knew for certain, because he had consulted a house-elf, and they knew everything.
He darted out the drawing room doors into the rose garden, meaning to take the shortcut to the shrubbery-maze. His quarry was said to be walking there, and Dennis wanted to find the person quickly. Ron's father was attending Regency Week, Dennis knew, but he didn't feel he could go to Mr Weasley—that felt far too much like telling tales and getting a mate in trouble with his dad, even though Ron was a few years older than Dennis.
Dennis Creevey came from a Muggle family. There'd been four of them: his parents, his brother, and him. His brother, Colin, had been his idol and his best mate, all in one package. Colin had been a photographer and a member of Dumbledore's Army, as well, but when his body had been found after the Battle of Hogwarts, Colin had been armed only with his wand—which was a shame, as he had been a far better photographer than a duellist. Dennis had found Colin's camera in his dormitory and taken it for his own. Sometimes, using it made Dennis feel close to his brother, but other times, it just made him feel like he'd never measure up to Colin, who'd died and left him alone to figure out how to be a wizard all on his own.
Dennis didn't feel like a very good wizard. At nineteen, he was old enough to have left school, but going back to Hogwarts after Colin died had been really hard for him. School had been impossible for Muggle-borns like the Creeveys the year of the war, and then there'd been the rebuilding of the school ... He was not a fully qualified wizard and probably never would be.
Still, a bloke didn't have to be a wizard to know the best person to go to when he was in a pickle. The best person for Dennis to go to had always been his big brother, Colin—and if Ron was in trouble, Dennis knew just what to do: find George Weasley and tell him everything.
A disinterested observer—perhaps one in the clouds, looking down on the castle from above—might have been amused by the fall-out of Dennis Creevey's misunderstanding of what he had heard in the clubroom. The rather small Creevey had found the elder Weasley brother, who had heard him out in frowning silence before adjuring him to silence. George had then gone immediately to run his brother to ground.
'Not a duel—a chess match!'
This had changed everything for George, who had begun with the principle of 'What Would Dad Do?' He was now freed to enjoy the joke for what it was, and to ponder how he could turn it to his profit ... but who with half a brain would bet against Ron in a chess game?
Lucius Malfoy had heard him out with a disdainful curl of his lip before reaching into that deep pocket and placing a handsome wager on the Headmaster to defeat Ronald Weasley at chess—perhaps Malfoy had no knowledge of Ron and the Transfigured chess set guarding the Philosopher's Stone. But the spreading of what had begun as a rumour and evolved into a wagering gala amongst the gentlemen was a thing of beauty, rather like the ripples caused by dropping a pebble into a pond of water. In short order, the secret of the chess challenge betwixt Severus Snape and Ron Weasley was, as most secrets at Hogwarts eventually became, common knowledge.
But the person on the outermost ring of that concentric, rippling circle—and therefore, the last to learn of it—was Hermione Granger.
Ron, returning to his room to change for dinner—why the hell did Regency folk have to spend half their lives changing clothes?—was startled to find Romilda Vane there, sitting in the desk chair.
'How did you get in?' he asked, noting how his voice rose to a near squeak.
Romilda held up a jar of Savoir Smith's Sore Muscle Reliever and gave him an impish smile. 'I told the house-elf that I had this for your sore shoulders, and that I had to stay to show you how to use it.'
Ron frowned at her. Honestly, the woman just didn't know when to give up the chase! He began to unbutton his coat. 'Well, you'd better clear out—don't you have to change clothes for dinner?'
She rose gracefully and crossed to him, beginning to assist with his waistcoat buttons. 'There's plenty of time for that if we skip drinks beforehand,' she said reasonably, finishing with the buttons and beginning to tug his white shirt from his trousers. 'Get this off and let me rub your shoulders, Ron—you're so tense, I don't know how you expect to be able to win at chess!'
Ron was stressed, and the shoulder rub sounded quite nice, actually. What could be the harm in letting Romilda massage his muscles?
When he was sitting on the side of the bed with Romilda's hands on his bare flesh, though, the muscle tension just seemed to move from one body part to another. It had been weeks since Hermione had let him in her bed; it was no wonder he was such a mess. A man couldn't think with all that ... excess fluid build-up. But it was a bit perplexing, this confusion and arousal from Romilda's touch when he was supposed to be concentrating on getting Hermione back.
'You deserve a girlfriend who appreciates you, Ron,' Romilda murmured into his ear as her clever fingers worked the kinks from his neck muscles. 'Someone who wants you—not just because you're so tall and funny and sexy—but because she admires who you are inside.'
Ron pushed himself off the bed and stood looking down at Romilda. It would be so easy to lie down with her and forget everything—but he had never been with another girl since he and Hermione had been a couple, except for the odd kiss and fumble at the pub or at a party when Hermione hadn't wanted to go with him—and he wasn't about to start now, just when having Hermione for his own again was within reach.
'You're really good at back rubs,' he said to the pretty brunette with the oil-slick hands, 'and thanks for that. But I'd like for you to go now.'
Romilda pouted, her mouth particularly kissable, and allowed her eyes to stray down to his trousers, where his muscle tension was still quite evident. 'Wouldn't you like for me to rub ... the rest of you?' she asked plaintively.
Hermione settled for the afternoon in the ladies' drawing room, doing bad tambour frame needlework whilst her mind wandered. Over and again, she remembered the feel of Firefly's muscles moving beneath her while Severus watched her, his hand on the lead attached to her horse's bridle, teaching her to canter ... almost as if he were the one striving beneath her ...
'Bother!' she exclaimed, snarling her thread again.
Flossy, the ancient house-elf who helped the ladies to correct their mistakes on their sewing projects, appeared and corrected Hermione's error with the touch of one gnarled finger. Hermione smiled her thanks; she'd been making loads of mistakes on her stitchery today, but it was difficult to concentrate when her mind continued to wander to Severus.
Penny found her there, just when Hermione was thinking about the tight fit of Severus' leather riding boots.
'What?' she said, startled out of her tumultuous thoughts.
Penny answered her shortly, her former friendliness seemingly at an end. 'I said, do you know where the Headmaster is?'
Hermione shrugged. 'He's busy this afternoon—meetings, and then he has to prepare a reading for tonight.'
'So, you aren't monopolising his time this afternoon?' Penny demanded.
Hermione resisted the urge to tell Penny off. 'I won't see him until drinks before dinner,' she replied evenly, rather proud of her measured response.
'Good!' Penny replied.
I hope he totally ignores her, Hermione thought, returning to her own, more pleasant thoughts.
Finbar Quigley wandered into the Hogwarts library, curious about this room that was to be the site of the chess match all his mates were talking about—and betting on. It was an immense chamber, filled with thousands of books. Tables and chairs were arranged in different spots, some in alcoves, and it was in one of these that he nearly stumbled on the aloof Headmaster Snape, sitting at a table and frowning at a book. Fin crept away, not wishing to disturb the sour fellow. Movement at the end of a row of books drew his eye, and he saw Penny Clearwater, the loveliest girl at the castle, heading directly for the Headmaster's table. It was fairly clear that Penny fancied the Headmaster, which made Fin sad, because he fancied Penny.
They had been thrown together at play rehearsals, where Penny had been given the part of Hermia to Fin's Lysander. Playing at lovers made Fin wish it were true, but Penny seemed entirely unmoved by his admiration. Of course, it didn't help that Fin was completely useless at flirting with girls he was really interested in. Joking about with the girls who flocked around Quidditch players was easy, but when a bloke really liked a girl, things became far more complicated.
Careful to keep his distance, he crept towards the alcove again, wanting to see Penny and Snape together—if the Headmaster returned Penny's interest, then Fin would simply have to give up the hope of attracting her attention. But when he saw Penny standing over the Headmaster, it seemed to him as if the man never took his eyes from his book. Fin couldn't hear their words, but it seemed to him that Penny was asking the Headmaster something, and whatever it was, it was making her anxious. Snape, however, never even looked at her. His response was unequivocal; even from this far away, Fin could hear his firm 'No'.
Penny tarried for only a moment, wringing her pretty hands, and then she walked away from Snape, her distress evident on her face. It made Fin want to hit something—Snape, preferably—but then, he had a better idea. He would do something to cheer Penny up—something she would like. The only problem was that Fin had no idea what that could be.
He decided he would ask Viktor. Krum was never at a loss with the ladies; even when he was soundly rebuffed, the Bulgarian was never down for long. Viktor would know what to do.
The guests all showed up for the musicale evening, wearing their party clothes and prepared to be entertained. There would be dramatic readings, and then there would be music—just such entertainments as had been quite common in Regency times. The large drawing room had been set with chairs in rows, much like a theatre, and the area in front of the hearth had been provided with a teacher's lectern, in case a reader needed a place to rest his book.
Hermione wore her second best evening gown, a blue-grey silk with silvery designs embroidered about the hem. Severus, who was very elegant in knee breeches and immaculate stockings, had seemed quite distracted at dinner, but Hermione had put that down to preoccupation over reading in public.
Oddly enough, it had seemed as though all the young people were in particularly high spirits before dinner. Hermione saw, more than once, knots of the young men laughing together; it gave her the uneasy feeling that they were up to something disruptive. Still, she was determined not to fret over it. She would simply have to trust to Harry and Ron to exercise some control over their unruly friends.
She and Severus took chairs near the back of the room for the readings, with him on the aisle, so that he might easily extract himself when it was time for him to read. She was wild to know what piece he had chosen, but he had only tantalised her with it, saying that she must wait and listen if she wished to know.
Minerva looked very much the grand old lady in her dark red velvet gown over an under dress of white satin. She wore her tartan as a scarf wound about her elegant, classical Grecian hair-do, from which a few plumes extruded. Severus was less than complimentary about his Deputy's attire.
'She looks like a cockatiel,' he said, and Hermione had to giggle.
How was it that she'd known this man for half her life but had never known before this week about his irresistible, dry humour?
'Thank you for coming tonight, my friends,' Minerva began, drawing everyone's attention to her. 'You may see by your programmes that we will begin the evening with dramatic readings and will follow that with musical entertainment.' She stood straighter, looking sternly about the full-to-bursting drawing room as if it were her classroom, and Hermione noticed everyone sitting a bit taller and looking attentive; for a crazy moment, she felt as if she should be taking notes. 'I will start us off with a poem by my countryman, Mr Robbie Burns!'
The assemblage gave polite applause, and McGonagall waited for it to end before she began,
O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June:
O my Luve's like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
Hermione loved to listen to Minerva McGonagall when she let her Scottish accent roll, and she enjoyed all three of the short poems Minerva read. Guests with whom Hermione was not personally acquainted followed with their readings in quick succession, some more accomplished public readers than others, some speaking from memory and some reading from books. Hermione was simply delighted by the lovely words.
When Severus rose to read, he glanced at her face, and she smiled up at him. 'I am all ears,' she promised.
The Headmaster reached the front of the room, and Hermione noted amongst the listeners a response similar to the one they'd given McGonagall, only more extreme. No one misbehaved in Snape's classroom.
'I shall read to you from the works of Mr Shelley,' he said, and Hermione's curiosity was piqued. Of the most famous romantic poets, Hermione though that Shelley might be the one least often quoted. She sat forward a bit to listen.
Oh! there are spirits of the air,
And genii of the evening breeze,
And gentle ghosts, with eyes as fair
As star-beams among twilight trees:
Such lovely ministers to meet
Oft hast thou turned from men thy lonely feet.
Hermione stared at him aghast as he spoke, his rich baritone effortlessly filling the room, riveting all who listened. He consulted no book or written notes, and he did not recite as had the other speakers, sounding like students regurgitating what they had got by heart. He spoke the words as if they were his own, proceeding from his own soul, and they told the tale of a broken heart.
With mountain winds, and babbling springs,
And moonlight seas, that are the voice
Of these inexplicable things,
Thou dost hold commune, and rejoice
When they did answer thee, but they
Cast, like a worthless boon, thy love away.
And thou hast sought in starry eyes
Beams that were never meant for thine,
Another's wealth: tame sacrifice
To a fond faith ! still dost thou pine?
Still dost thou hope that greeting hands,
Voice, looks, or lips, may answer thy demands?
Hermione felt tears start to her eyes, as if she might cry. She knew Severus' story—everyone in the wizarding world knew it. Did he still, then, pine for Lily Potter, for the woman who had never loved him? How would it ever be possible, then, to win this wizard's heart?
As if she wanted his heart! What a silly thing to think! She was attracted to his body, his voice, his wit—she wanted to feel his hands on her—but that wasn't love. It was passion, and such visceral reactions required no such emotion!
Ah! wherefore didst thou build thine hope
On the false earth's inconstancy?
Did thine own mind afford no scope
Of love, or moving thoughts to thee?
That natural scenes or human smiles
Could steal the power to wind thee in their wiles?
Yes, all the faithless smiles are fled
Whose falsehood left thee broken-hearted;
The glory of the moon is dead;
Night's ghosts and dreams have now departed;
Thine own soul still is true to thee,
But changed to a foul fiend through misery.
This fiend, whose ghastly presence ever
Beside thee like thy shadow hangs,
Dream not to chase: the mad endeavour
Would scourge thee to severer pangs.
Be as thou art. Thy settled fate,
Dark as it is, all change would aggravate.
The Headmaster lowered his head, as if to indicate the end of his reading. Hermione dipped her chin and rubbed a gloved hand across her wet eyes, glad that there was no eye makeup to smear. How could he stand to bare his soul so? She could scarcely bear it for him, her heart aching for his sorrow and his loss—but it seemed he was not finished with them, for when the applause was ended, he began again.
One word is too often profaned
For me to profane it,
One feeling too falsely disdain'd
For thee to disdain it.
One hope is too like despair
For prudence to smother,
And pity from thee more dear
Than that from another.
Hermione found that she was not breathing, but the realisation still did not prompt her to draw breath. The spellbinding beauty of the words he spoke held her rapt, and another breath seemed the least important concern of all. Then those black eyes sought hers and held them, and she wasn't sure she would ever breathe again.
I can give not what men call love;
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heavens reject not:
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow?
A low, courteous bow was all the response the Headmaster gave to the thunderous applause he received, and he strode from the front of the room to disappear through a side door. At last Hermione pulled air into her lungs, shaken to the core by the look in his eyes as he had spoken the words to her. Was he flirting with her? Was he playing the part of the gallant gentleman?
She strove to calm the storm of emotion within, expecting at any moment to have him come up to take his seat beside her—but he did not come. Instead, Viktor Krum slipped into the Headmaster's place. Hermione turned a glare on him. 'That's not your chair!' she objected.
Viktor waved a hand. 'I know that!' he said. 'But the Headmaster won't be back for it.'
Hermione frowned. 'Why wouldn't he?'
'Never mind that,' Viktor said. 'I have a problem, and I need your help.'
Hermione felt impatient, but she couldn't refuse him. She was the coordinator of this event, even if she had spent the entire day in nothing but pursuing her own pleasure. People were moving about just now, the pianoforte and the harp being placed for the convenience of the musical performers, so at least Viktor wasn't interrupting anyone.
'Tell me,' she commanded.
'My friend Fin,' Viktor said. 'He pines for Penelope Clearwater, but she does not notice him. Can you speak to her on his behalf? Or tell me what can he do to please her?'
Penny was far too annoyed with Hermione to listen to her advice about men—but perhaps, if Fin could gain Penny's notice, she would stop trying to get Severus' attention away from Hermione. At least the antagonism between Penny and her was not so evident that Viktor was aware of it.
Oh! And hadn't Parkinson said something to her about Viktor?
'Penny is going to sing a song with Pansy in a little while—a duet.' Hermione glanced at Viktor, wondering if he could be pointed in Parkinson's direction. 'Why don't you and Fin sit as close to the front as you can and pay special attention to them? I'm sure they will be flattered, and Penny will be sure to notice Fin!'
Viktor looked doubtful. 'Do we have to do it now?' he asked, looking to the clock on the mantelpiece. 'It's almost nine o'clock!'
Hermione huffed. 'What difference does that make? If Fin wants Penny to notice him, you should go sit up front now, while people are moving around!'
The room had been quite full, but as people began to settle down for the musical portion of the evening, Hermione could not help but notice a marked increase in the number of empty chairs. In fact, most of the younger members of the group were nowhere to be seen, and even some of the older men were gone.
Where were they gone to?
The harp was being tuned up by a woman in a filmy white dress when Luna sat down beside Hermione. 'I love harp music,' she said in her vague way.
'Do you know where everyone is?' Hermione asked her.
'Oh, they've gone to watch Ron and the Headmaster duel,' Luna said. 'They were going to begin at nine o'clock, and it's past that now.' She arranged her skirt and folded her hands in her lap.
'What? What are you saying?' Hermione demanded, suddenly frightened. Luna's words made no sense at all!
'It's not a proper duel, you know,' Luna continued dreamily. 'They're playing chess in the library—but George says it's a rematch, so Ron can win back what he lost at cards.'
Hermione absorbed the information, her understanding lagging only slightly behind her reasoning mind. When she fully grasped what Luna had said, all trace of her mawkish sentimentality about Snape and his spouting of romantic poetry was gone, replaced by a rage so unexpected and all-consuming that she could not experience it and remain immobile. Standing, she moved past Luna and through the doorway without a word to anyone; she was through the Entrance Hall, with one foot upon the first stair up to her room when Penny's and Parkinson's prettily harmonised voices rose in song.