For Hogwarts: A Regency Gamble
Saturday, August 10, 2002, Midnight to
Sunday, August 11, 2002, Dawn
Hermione was curled into a tight ball on the far side of her bed, her forehead pressed to the wall. It had been nearly half an hour since he’d left her, and try as she might, she could not let go of her yearning to be with him. Feeling like a pool of humiliating need, she cast the spell and spoke his name.
His response was immediate, almost as if he’d been waiting for her. If he was sitting in his room, wanting her as badly as she wanted him, why wasn’t he here? It made no sense to her.
‘I can’t sleep,’ she said.
‘It would seem we share the affliction.’
His voice was deep and distinctive, warm and welcoming in a manner he could not seem to replicate when standing in the same room with her. The rich baritone was not like oil on troubled waters; it was like tinder for the raging fire of her want.
Hermione squeezed her eyes closed and thumped her forehead against the wall. ‘You could have come in,’ she said, so softly she wasn’t sure if she had meant him to hear her or not.
But he retained the annoying habit of hearing the things one muttered under one’s breath, just as any self-respecting secondary schoolteacher could do.
‘Coming in is the easy part,’ he replied, his words also pitched as if he only half wished for her to hear him. ‘Leaving again—that is another issue entirely.’
Insensibly aroused and encouraged by his words, her inner ache increased. Eyes closed, she bathed in the timbre of his voice, slowly turning her head from side to side as she pushed against the wall, as if she could push through its solidity into his arms.
‘You … you wanted to stay with me?’ she asked.
It took him so long to answer that she had all but given up hope of his reply. Had he walked away from their conversation? Gone to bed? Was this tenuous thread of connection so much less important to him than it was to her?
‘Might we … speak of something else?’
He sounded tentative—diffident, even—and she sensed that if she pushed the question, he would answer her. He was, in effect, asking for mercy, and the emotion that flooded her every synapse at this realization was like a sense-heightening drug. She held him in palm of her hand. How would she proceed?
‘Tell me more about Apollyon,’ she said.
There was a faint thump from the other side, and Hermione wondered if he had his head pressed against the wall, too.
‘Apollyon became a proud papa this week …’
Hermione donned her riding dress with a touch of nostalgia, for today would be the last time she would wear it—the last time she would ride beside Severus Snape. This day would be fraught with lasts, culminating with the grand ball, the last hurrah of Regency Week. Tomorrow, everyone would pack away their Regency costumes, don their modern day gear, and go back to their everyday lives.
The night before, she had talked with Severus until the satin smooth cadence of his voice lulled her into dreams—dreams in which he figured quite prominently. She might have felt embarrassed to have fallen asleep in the middle of their conversation, but she didn’t. She knew he had wanted her to sleep. She had bone-deep confidence that she had made one of the most important friends of her life, this week, and she did not doubt his reciprocation of her feelings.
But did he … want her, as she wanted him? Not love, she scolded the voice in her mind. Far too soon for love.
Not that the voice in her head paid her much mind.
She took up her riding hat—the one Severus had savaged the day before—and pinned it in place, murmuring a little spell to straighten the plume his rough handling had crumpled.
‘Tally ho,’ she murmured to her reflection, ignoring the mirror’s answering, ‘Tally ho to you, miss!’
Harry woke with another body in his bed, and for a moment, he was confused and alarmed. He was not accustomed to sharing his sleeping space with another person. But reconnaissance proved there was no cause for alarm. His bedfellow was Draco Malfoy, his improbably endearing lover.
Harry swallowed. He had let his emotions get the better of him the night before, and now the word about gay Harry Potter would be all over the wizarding world. He had dreaded that possibility for years—had pretended to be someone he was not to avoid it—and now he found he didn’t care. He was happy, and the price he paid for it, he found, was not too high.
‘If you had a decent bone in your body, you’d go back to sleep,’ Draco muttered without opening his eyes.
Harry rose on an elbow to look down into Draco’s face. The angelic beauty had always disturbed him, and now he understood why. ‘You had no complaints about my bones last night,’ he murmured, lowering his face to Draco’s throat and breathing deeply of the other man’s scent.
Draco rolled over and pinned him, straddling his abdomen. ‘I haven’t had a chance to examine all of your bones satisfactorily yet,’ he said. ‘I’ll let you know when I have done.’
Harry stared up at the toned, fit body. ‘You’re fucking beautiful,’ he said, unable to help himself.
Draco grinned, the playful side Harry had never seen before this week, shining forth. ‘Yeah, but I want you anyway,’ he laughed.
Wrestling ensued, and like the night before, segued almost seamlessly into lovemaking. Afterwards, sweaty and spent, Harry lay upon his pillow, struggling to reclaim his breath. Draco stroked a finger down his cheek.
‘We need to play Quidditch,’ he said, his tone rather dreamy.
Harry shook his head. ‘Hermione said we couldn’t—said it’ll spoil the atmosphere.’
Draco sat up abruptly. ‘Twaddle,’ he said. ‘Wizards have been playing Quidditch since the fourteenth century. You can bet the Regency blokes played—and that they wagered on the games, too.’
The blond climbed from the bed and took up his mangled fairy costume. ‘How am I supposed to get back to my room in this thing?’
Harry forced himself from his comfortable pillow and picked up his dressing gown, tossing it to Draco. ‘Borrow that,’ he said.
Draco looked the garment over disdainfully.
‘It’s not silk, all right?’ Harry said irritably. ‘I don’t have your poncy tastes, Ferret.’
Draco shrugged into the dressing gown. ‘That is apparent, Potter.’
Harry made a rude hand gesture, and Draco pounced on him for a vertical grappling match. Then they kissed, ending with their foreheads pressed together.
‘When will we ever have another chance to play Quidditch with Krum and Fin?’ Draco murmured.
Harry spun away, grabbing up his shower gear. ‘I’ll tell Ron,’ he promised. ‘Do you think we can scare up enough for two full teams?’
Draco smirked. ‘You’re smarter than you look, Potter. I knew you’d see it my way.’
Severus opened the stall door, allowing Hermione to precede him inside. Persephone nickered at them, and Severus took her halter, speaking soothingly. From her pocket, Hermione withdrew a carefully pared apple, offering it to the broodmare on the flat of her hand.
Severus chuckled. ‘You cut out the apple core to feed it to a horse?’ he said.
Hermione stroked the mare’s shining chestnut neck. ‘Don’t think I can’t tell when you’re mocking me,’ she said severely.
‘Mea culpa,’ he murmured, and she looked up at him with her melting brown eyes.
Kiss her, his inner voice urged.
Severus quashed the notion, stepping away from Hermione to crouch before the foal peeking from behind her mother. ‘This is Apollyon’s daughter,’ he said, looking into the filly’s eyes.
Hermione knelt beside him in the clean straw, rapt in admiration. ‘She’s perfect,’ she whispered.
Severus watched the witch’s face as she studied the filly, allowing himself to simply be in the moment, without trying to remain four or five steps ahead of his companion. She was not, after all, the enemy, strictly speaking. She was a friend—the first new friend he’d had in all his adult life—and the fact that she was a desirable woman was not her fault. He must not hold it against her that being beside her made him want to …
He shook himself from his reverie. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘What did you say?’
‘What’s the filly’s name?’
He straightened, believing that if he was not directly on Hermione’s level—if they weren’t eye to eye—he would not feel compelled to put his arms around her. To increase the safety zone, he moved around the foal, putting the small horse squarely between them.
‘I haven’t decided what to name her,’ he said, crossing his arms over his chest and pondering. ‘Tell me, who’s your favourite female Jane Austen character?’
Hermione seemed taken aback. ‘I … I don’t know. I’d have to think about it.’
He nodded sagely. ‘Take your time. Mine is Colonel Brandon, and I can’t name her that—perhaps when Apollyon sires a colt, I’ll use the name.’
Hermione laughed. ‘I see your dilemma,’ she replied. ‘But I can’t name your horse—she must be quite valuable.’
He studied the woman and the tiny black filly. ‘I am merely seeking your input,’ he assured her. ‘And I won’t be selling this little girl—not until she’s grown, and I can see if she’ll be up to my weight. I have good hopes for her, since her dam and sire are both of a good size.’ He stretched a hand to rest upon the filly’s neck, and she looked up at him trustingly, already becoming accustomed to the sight and sound of this particular human. ‘She’ll be brought on slowly and trained as a hunter.’
Hermione smiled at him and held out a gloved hand, inviting his assistance. He helped her up, resisting the urge to dust away the straw clinging to her skirt.
‘It’s hard to imagine that something so tiny will someday be as large as this pretty lady,’ she said, giving Persephone another pat. ‘But we’d best go for our ride now,’ she added, avoiding his eyes, ‘if we mean to be back at the castle in time for breakfast.’
‘As you say, Milady,’ he responded, and she took his arm to stroll to the stable yard, where Apollyon and Firefly were saddled and ready for them.
The stable-elves were quite accustomed to the Headmaster’s rides with the lady, for they made no effort to assist. Severus laced his hands to receive Hermione’s booted foot and tossed her into the saddle, deeply satisfied to see how she settled herself on the horse. How would she do in breeches, like a modern day rider, sitting astride her mount? Would he have an opportunity to find out?
Almost, he thought he would never be happy in the saddle again without Hermione at his side, and the idea twisted in his gut like a malevolent worm.
No, he would not think about that—not now, when the dew was still wet upon the grass, the sky was the blue of childhood dreams, and the woman of his … sickliest fantasies awaited his company.
Don’t denigrate her! his inner lovesick adolescent raged at him.
Pushing the confusing thoughts away, he swung into his saddle, delighting as always to the dance of his Arabian beneath him. He took a moment to settle his mount, then turned to Hermione. The expression he saw on her face hit him like a bodily blow. Her visceral reaction was as powerful as the one she stirred in him.
Gods be damned to the woman—what right did she have to be so fucking perfect?
He did not speak again, but set off for the open space of the fields with his companion at his side, the understanding between them too profound for mere words.
Lucius and Leticia failed to show up for breakfast again on Saturday morning, and Severus could only surmise their location and probable activity. The assumption filled him with a certain amount of resentment. Leticia Mortelle had led Lucius on a long, tortuous chase, whereas Hermione had shown Severus nothing but acceptance—encouragement, even—so why should Lucius be enjoying the fruits of his labours when Severus simmered in such a pool of dissatisfaction?
After breakfast, most of the guests flocked to Minerva McGonagall’s dancing class, in preparation for the night’s grand ball, but Severus was at loose ends. Fortescue Parkinson had suffered a severe bout of dyspepsia after the play the previous night—the dunderhead ought to have known he couldn’t drink an entire bottle of port on his own—and Hermione had insisted upon going to visit him in the hospital wing, where the older wizard languished under Poppy Pomfrey’s no-nonsense care. Severus skived off the visit; he had no love for the man, who had been a surreptitious supporter of the Dark Lord. Too bad Pomfrey was not administering some true Regency remedies to Parkinson, such as bleeding—or maybe even leeches.
Instead, he strolled into Lucius’ fencing classroom to find his friend fencing with—and no doubt admiring—his reflection in the long mirror on the far wall. Lucius turned when he saw Severus, taking up an épée and offering it to him. Severus accepted the weapon automatically, his fingers confirming the truth his eyes could see: the tip of the duelling sword was covered with a protective button.
‘Good morning!’ Lucius said, and Severus had to admit his friend looked very well indeed.
‘How did you manage to tear yourself away from Professor Mortelle?’ he inquired sardonically. ‘Shouldn’t you be modelling for the Language of Fans?’
Lucius smirked. ‘We each have our last classes to teach, but we’ll see one another again at lunch.’ He assumed a duelling pose. ‘It’s been a year at least since we fenced, Severus. Would you care to try your hand?’
Severus shook his head and replaced the épée on the table amongst the other practice foils. ‘Not today,’ he answered.
Lucius turned again to his reflection, practicing a lunging thrust. ‘I would make mincemeat of you today, my friend,’ he said. ‘She has accepted me, you know.’
Severus arched an eyebrow. ‘When is the happy day?’
‘We’ll marry at Christmas. Leticia wants a formal wedding—and why should she not have it? It will be her first—her only—wedding.’
Lucius spun around again, lightness of heart making him light on his feet. Remembering how crushed his friend had been when Narcissa had left him, Severus could not begrudge him his happiness—but he could envy it, couldn’t he?
‘I do have a favour to ask of you, though,’ Lucius said, setting his practice foil upon the table.
‘No, I will not tell Draco for you,’ Severus snapped.
‘Draco already knows,’ Lucius replied, looking slightly hurt. ‘I met with him this morning to let him know young Zabini departed with a minimum of fuss. I told him then, and he was pleased for me.’
Severus had to be impressed by that bit of news. ‘I applaud your daring,’ he said dryly.
‘The favour concerns Miss Granger,’ Lucius continued, and Severus turned a black glare upon him.
‘I am in no mood to hear your impertinent remarks about Hermione,’ he warned.
Now it was Lucius’ turn to arch brows over his curious grey eyes. ‘You mistake me, Severus. Draco and young Potter are gathering the young people for a Quidditch match after lunch—he asks only that you find a way to keep Miss Granger busy indoors for a couple of hours.’
Severus continued his thin-lipped glare, waiting to hear what further suggestions Lucius would have for occupying Hermione’s time, but Lucius was wise enough to refrain.
‘Very well,’ Severus said sourly. ‘I will do what I can to occupy her time, but I make no promises. When she has the bit between her teeth, it would defy the skill of Merlin himself to turn her from what she has her mind set upon.’
Lucius spread his hands expansively. ‘I could ask for no more of you, old man.’ He took a step nearer, his manner sober. ‘You know, Severus, it’s apparent, even to a jaded old soul like me, that the girl adores you. You’ve admitted that you find her enchanting. What scruples are restraining you from enjoying her fully?’
Severus drew a deep breath. ‘My jaded old soul has a conscience inconveniently attached to it, Lucius. For all her intelligence and maturity, she is an innocent. She has no idea who I am or what I’ve done.’
Lucius watched him with narrowed, shrewd eyes. After a moment of consideration, he said, ‘Her soul, if you will, may be innocent, but you must give her credit for her life experience. No one who has lived in hiding from the Dark Lord for as long as she did—who has endured torture at the hands of the unmourned Bellatrix and lived to tell the tale—can be entirely unacquainted with the darker aspects of the world.’
He came a step closer and placed a hand on Severus’ shoulder, and Severus saw their reflection, two Regency gentlemen in conversation.
‘You’ve been … alone for a long time, Severus. Stoic and self-sacrificing. I know you’ve been more generous with yourself since the end of the war, but don’t you think it’s time to take that next step? To allow someone who loves you to come close?’ His grip tightened, and his voice betrayed his deepest emotion. ‘It is worth the gamble, my best of friends. There is more to a prison than four walls—we can create our own, by building barriers between ourselves and those who would love us.’
Severus was acutely uncomfortable. He and Lucius had spoken freely with one another for years, so it wasn’t the emotional content of the speech which bothered him. No, it was the echo of Dumbledore’s words—of the thoughts which had plagued him for the last several days—that made him step away, his lip curling into a sneer.
‘I will thank you to keep your mind on your own affairs,’ he snapped.
Lucius looked regretful, but he executed a gentleman’s bow of acceptance. Then, the sound of their conversation preceding them, the gentlemen fresh from McGonagall’s clutches began to arrive for their last fencing lesson, and Severus slipped out when Lucius was otherwise occupied.
Harry had circulated amongst the guests that morning, passing on the news of the clandestine Quidditch match. George promptly agreed to play Beater for Harry’s team, and immediately set out to begin the betting pool.
‘Maybe I’ll win back some of the gold I lost when Snape won the chess game!’ he said.
The one person Harry hadn’t been able to find was Neville. Where the devil had he got himself off to? Harry did, however, run across Gabrielle Delacour in the Entrance Hall. Gabby never let Neville get too far out of her sight. She had a warm shawl wrapped about her shoulders, and she was headed for the door.
‘Gabby!’ Harry called. ‘Wait up!’
She turned, a smile lighting her pretty face. She and Harry had been friends for years—ever since he’d rescued her from the bottom of the lake, during the Triwizard Tournament.
‘Hi, Harry!’ she said, waiting for him.
He grinned at her. ‘Listen, I was looking for Neville—do you know where he is?’
Gabby nodded solemnly. ‘Oh yes! I’m going down to meet with him now. He’s at the Whomping Willow.’
Harry blinked. ‘What?’ he said, thinking perhaps he’d misunderstood her.
‘It’s where he goes for quiet,’ Gabby explained.
‘You can’t get quiet from the Whomping Willow,’ Harry objected. ‘The damn tree tries to kill anyone who gets close to it.’ A thought occurred to him. ‘Wait—does he use a stick to push on that knot that makes it hold still? Is that how he—’
Gabby shook her head. ‘Oh, no! It is not like that, Harry. The Willow never Whomps Neville. After all, he understands its beauty, doesn’t he?’
Harry stared at the French girl, realising that she was so much in love with Neville that she probably thought he could defeat Snape in a duel, find the thirteenth use for dragon blood, and discover the cure for Lycanthropy, as well. All before dinner.
‘Yeah,’ he said vaguely. ‘Yeah, that’s probably true. Listen, Gabby, could you tell him we’re having a secret Quidditch match after lunch? If he wants to watch, he should come down to the pitch. And you’re welcome, too. But we aren’t telling Hermione. All right?’
Gabby beamed at him. ‘I’ll tell him—I’m sure we’ll be there!’ She took a step closer to Harry then, putting a hand on his arm and lowering her voice. ‘You’re his best friend, Harry,’ she said.
Harry blinked. He was Neville’s best friend? Why didn’t he know that?
Gabby continued, not knowing she had said something Harry would find odd. ‘After Regency Week, I am going to ask him to come home with me to meet my parents.’
Harry felt some sympathy then for Neville. Meeting your girlfriend’s parents was terrifying, even for so exalted a person as the Serpent Slayer.
‘That’s great, Gabby,’ he said with as much enthusiasm as he could manage. ‘Well, I’ve got to find Draco now.’
He began to back away, but the part-Veela would not let him go. ‘You and Draco are so adorable together!’ she gushed.
Harry pulled his arm away from her and turned to go. ‘Erm, thanks,’ he muttered as he bolted.
Hermione escaped from Mr Parkinson after an hour of listening to his health complaints. Her schedule said she was supposed to be riding at Malfoy Manor now, but she and Severus had taken their ride earlier. Their last ride. The idea made her terribly sad.
‘But I still have him for one more day,’ she murmured to herself as she marched out of the hospital wing. ‘I have him for one more day, and I’m going to make the most of it.’
She was already nostalgic, as well, for the passing of Regency Week. Ever since she had been a little girl, she had wanted to visit Jane Austen’s world, and this week was the closest she would ever come to that dream. She had ridden side saddle, danced the old dances with an enigmatic partner, attended the hunt breakfast and drunk the stirrup cup, played at bowls and badminton, done bad needlework, and worn her beloved Regency costumes, all just as a real Regency lady would have done. Moreover, this scheme of hers had brought in enough gold to satisfy the school’s shortfall of funds.
And it had all been for Hogwarts, had it not?
She bit her lip, knowing it wasn’t strictly true. It had also been for Hermione’s wish to play at being in Regency times … and for her budding penchant for the company of the unfathomable Headmaster.
She found him, at last, in Professor Binns’ classroom. The ghost professor was lecturing on about the Muggle Parliament’s attempts to pay the debts of the Regent, and the Headmaster was listening with a scowl on his face. As she entered the classroom, Binns looked up from his notes.
‘Late to class, Miss Grangeworth?’ he inquired in a disapproving wheeze.
Severus stood and swept across the room to her, black robes billowing. ‘Do continue, Professor,’ he said. ‘I will deal with the … student.’
‘Very good, Headmaster,’ Binns said and resumed his lecture at precisely the point he had left off.
Hermione could not resist a giggle as Severus followed her into the corridor. ‘I’m a bit old for a student!’ she pointed out.
Severus shrugged. ‘To old men such as Binns and I are, you are a mere child,’ he informed her.
Hermione let the taunt go by, for she had a far more urgent question to ask. ‘Why are you in robes? Have you already left off your Regency clothes?’ She tried not to let her disappointment show, but it was difficult.
He gave her half a smile. ‘Do these look like my usual robes?’ he asked her. ‘Madam Malkin would be offended to hear you say so.’
Hermione looked him over more closely. The robes were of a fabric that appeared so soft she couldn’t resist the urge to touch. ‘It looks like suede,’ she said, stroking his sleeve.
He smirked. ‘Yes, it’s quite soft to the touch. Feel free to … pet the robes.’
She giggled again and inspected him more closely. What he actually wore was a cassock-like garment over black trousers and boots, with a detachable cape hanging from his shoulders—that would account for the billowing effect. The sleeves were richly trimmed with blacker braid on black fabric; even the multitude of buttons on the sleeves was covered in the soft material. The front of the cassock bore a deep, braid-trimmed vee, double-breasted buttons marching down the front of it in ever-narrowing formation.
‘These are made from the specifications of Drocksmore Mirthwent, Headmaster of Hogwarts from 1796 to 1824,’ he said. ‘With the Governor’s meeting this afternoon, I wished to be as headmasterly as possible. One’s words carry more weight when backed up by a proper … presence.’
Hermione ducked her head with a smile, remembering how he had ruled his classrooms with the very presence of which he spoke. Then she took his arm. ‘Well, my afternoon gown doesn’t do your robes justice, but will you still sit with me at lunch?’
He led her towards the staircase. ‘My personalised schedule clearly says I am to be your escort at lunch, Milady,’ he informed her.
She laughed again, loving his playfulness, and determined to enjoy every minute of her dwindling time with him.
After lunch, Severus dangled his invitation before his prey, hoping she would fall in with his plans.
‘To your office?’ Hermione reached into her reticule and withdrew the sheaf of notes for her presentation to the Board of Governors. ‘But I need to work on my report!’
‘I am aware,’ Severus replied patiently, hoping she wouldn’t notice the mass exodus of the guests from the castle. ‘I thought, perhaps, you would have more privacy to prepare in my office.’
She studied him with a touch of suspicion. ‘Will you be in your office with me?’ she asked.
‘You will have some time alone, and then I will join you there,’ he answered.
She smiled happily. ‘All right, then.’
He set her up at a table to the right of his desk, near Dumbledore’s portrait, as she requested. He had already enchanted the windows. At eleven o’clock, there had been no Quidditch players in the air, and the windows were frozen to show what had been outside at that time. Hopefully, Hermione wouldn’t be there long enough to wonder why the sun wasn’t moving in the sky.
‘That’s a funny hat, sir,’ she said to Dumbledore’s portrait. ‘I don’t remember seeing you wear it before.’
Dumbledore twinkled at her. ‘It was a gift from Severus,’ he enthused. ‘It is an excellent hat, isn’t it?’
Hermione laughed and agreed quite gravely. Then she spread her paperwork out on the table and took up her quill, her brow furrowed with concentration.
‘I’ll be back soon,’ Severus promised before slipping out the door.
Even though it was Saturday afternoon, the offices of Probe! Magazine were open, if lightly staffed. He was inside and down the corridor to the editor’s office in a flash.
Skeeter looked much as she’d always done, her hair an improbable shade of platinum, her talon-like nails painted vermillion, her jewelled spectacles glinting in the light from her office window. Severus slipped into the room and stood before her, silent as a wraith.
Her startled screech brought the faithful Bozo hurtling from another room, but when he saw who the visitor was, he skulked away.
Severus simply stared down at Skeeter, allowing his disgust to show on his face. His antipathy for her had meant she never obtained the interview with him she so badly wanted after the war. Why would he grant her one moment of his time, after the smear job she had done on Dumbledore’s biography? The witch was untrustworthy in the extreme.
Skeeter jumped to her feet, pulling a short, thick wand from her sleeve and levelling it at him. ‘What do you want? Go away!’
In a leisurely manner, Severus seated himself and crossed one leg over the other. Still, he did not speak.
Skeeter stood frozen behind her desk, her beetle-eyes darting to the door, then to Severus, and back again, as if trying to decide if she could get past him.
‘I wouldn’t try it, if I were you,’ he drawled.
She exhaled noisily. ‘Why won’t you tell me why you’re here?’
‘I am here to thank you,’ he replied.
She gaped at him.
‘Hogwarts appreciates your generous donation to the scholarship fund for Muggle-born students displaced by the war.’
‘I never made a donation to your dratted school!’
Stonily he returned her bug-eyed stare. Finally, she sat down. When she resumed her seat, he spoke again.
‘You will be welcome to trumpet your scoop as the first donor to the fund in your … publication.’ He placed a parchment upon her desk. ‘The plan is still in its infancy, and many of the details have yet to be determined, but your vision in investing in the future of wizarding education is a vote of confidence for our young people.’ He spoke the words as if he were reading them from a press announcement.
She thrust the parchment back towards him. ‘I have no intention of giving you a single Knut!’
He stood abruptly, towering over her, and Skeeter cowered back in her chair. ‘But you already have done so,’ he replied silkily, ‘in the amount necessary to buy a spy to sneak into Regency Week and steal its secrets for you.’ He gently pushed the parchment to her again. ‘You may publish this in place of the exposé you won’t be receiving.’
‘You can’t do that!’ she cried.
Severus sneered. ‘Tell me—have you ever bothered to register your Animagus form with the Ministry?’
Skeeter’s flushed face paled to chalky white.
‘I didn’t think so,’ he said smugly, sweeping out of the office with a swirl of his Regency robes.
He entered his office again quietly, seeing Hermione still hard at work. She gave him a distracted smile and immediately lowered her head to her Arithmantic equations again.
Severus sat behind his desk, adrenaline still pumping from his encounter with Rita Skeeter. He had prepared his reports for the Governors already; he had nothing further to do. Without thinking, he withdrew the old playing cards from his pocket and began to shuffle them.
Hermione looked up with a frown. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked with a hint of irritation in her tone.
Severus fanned the deck out. ‘Pick a card.’
She laughed uncertainly. ‘I never would have taken you for a man interested in parlour tricks,’ she said. But she did as he asked and took a card.
‘What is it?’ he asked her curtly.
‘It’s the queen of hearts,’ she said, turning it face up. ‘Why?’
He shook his head once, ignoring Dumbledore’s portrait, which chortled softly, drawing Hermione’s attention.
‘What’s the joke?’ she asked, looking from the portrait to Severus and back again.
‘Draw another card,’ Severus commanded. Would the bloody things continue to confound him?
Hermione sighed and took another card, placing it face up beside the queen of hearts. ‘It’s the jack of spades,’ she said.
‘The knave,’ he corrected her grimly, glaring at the two offending face cards.
‘All right, the knave,’ she said. ‘Do you mind if I work now?’
He ground his teeth together and shuffled the cards. What did it mean, if even she could draw nothing but those two blasted cards? He turned a glare on the portrait, where his old mentor watched him with indulgent affection. Severus resisted the urge to make a rude gesture at the old goat. Instead, he cut the deck.
Queen of hearts.
Knave of spades.
‘Excuse me?’ Hermione said, turning startled eyes to his face.
Severus stood and slapped the cards onto the table in front of her. ‘Humour me,’ he said. ‘Shuffle and cut the deck.’
Hermione put her quill down. ‘Severus, you said I would have quiet to work if I came to your office,’ she reminded him.
‘You know your bloody report is already perfect,’ he said. ‘You don’t need to add another foot of parchment to impress them—your results speak for themselves!’
Her cheeks turned pink at this backhanded compliment, and her lips parted as she drew breath. He wanted to devour that mouth.
‘Shuffle,’ he demanded, adding as an afterthought, ‘please, Milady.’
Her gaze darted to the portrait. ‘You’ve never called me that in front of anyone else,’ she said, her voice almost a whisper. He couldn’t tell if she was pleased or embarrassed.
‘I still haven’t,’ he assured her. ‘Portraits aren’t people.’
She and Dumbledore turned nearly identical reproachful looks on him. Gritting his teeth in frustration, he took up the cards and placed them in her hand.
‘Shuffle,’ he said.
With a loud sigh, as if she were greatly put upon, Hermione shuffled the deck three times and cut the cards.
‘The queen of hearts again!’ she said, genuinely surprised.
‘Cut again,’ he instructed.
She did so, turning up that blackguard, the knave of spades.
‘You see, Severus?’ the portrait chided.
Severus snatched the cards up again and thrust them into his pocket. From outside, a loud roar rose from the Quidditch pitch.
Hermione looked around, startled. ‘What in the world is that?’ she asked, standing to look out the window.
‘I didn’t hear anything,’ Severus lied. ‘Come, let’s go to the meeting room. We should be there to greet the Governors when they arrive.’
Hermione threw up her hands. ‘You are behaving very strangely, Severus,’ she informed him.
But she gathered her belongings into her reticule, and Severus swept her away before the portrait could say something he really didn’t want her to hear.
Neville and Gabby climbed up into the stands to find a place to sit. Romilda Vane, Penny Clearwater, and Pansy Parkinson were sitting together on the front row, while Luna Lovegood sat alone on the row behind them. Neville led Gabby over to sit with Luna.
‘Who’s on the teams?’ he asked.
Pansy looked very pleased with herself. ‘Viktor and Fin are playing together, of course,’ she said, as if that were the only thing that mattered.
Romilda looked around at them. ‘Ron is playing Keeper on Harry’s team,’ she said. ‘And George is going to be a Beater.’
Neville looked down on the ground, where the players were gathered on the outside perimeter of the maze he’d grown on the pitch. ‘Who’s playing Seeker against Krum?’ he asked. ‘Harry or Draco?’
Pansy laughed nastily. ‘They’re still working that out.’
Draco and Harry were standing together, apart from the other players, and they were arguing.
‘You play Seeker, and I’ll play Chaser,’ Harry said, and Neville recognised that stubborn look on his face. Harry could teach obstinacy to a mule.
Draco thrust his face into Harry’s. ‘I want to win this game!’ he snarled.
For a minute, it looked as if the two would drop their brooms and start throwing punches, but Viktor Krum chose that moment to speak up.
‘It doesn’t matter which one of you plays Seeker!’ he called gaily. ‘Either way, I will catch the Snitch!’
Draco gritted his teeth. ‘You’ll bloody well play Seeker, Scar Head!’
‘Fine!’ Harry snapped.
‘Fine!’ Draco replied, and the two of them exchanged simultaneous punches on the shoulder.
Neville was surprised to know that Harry would even think about letting Draco play Seeker instead of him. He’d seen their kiss at the end of the play the night before, but that didn’t impress him nearly as much as Harry being willing to let Draco play his favourite position in the game. That must be some kind of true love.
Fin Quigley and Harry stepped forward and shook hands, and Professor Hooch, who had agreed to referee for them, blew her whistle.
Penny and Pansy held hands as their swains kicked off, both dressed in their Ballycastle Bats Quidditch uniforms. ‘Aren’t they wonderful?’ Penny breathed.
Pansy nodded her head grimly. ‘Bloody brilliant,’ she agreed.
Neville concentrated on the players filling the air with swooping brooms, wishing there were some blokes he could sit with instead of all these girls.
All the Board of Governors, even those who had not taken advantage of the discount offered them to participate in Regency Week, would be in attendance at the grand ball that night. Accordingly, the meeting room was filled with ladies in ball gowns and men in knee breeches and stockings. Hermione gave the first report, taking her place before the charts she had created to show how the funds raised by Regency Week had more than satisfied the shortfall in school funding.
‘… and the additional funds raised will be used to supplement the Hogwarts Scholarship Fund,’ she ended. ‘Are there any questions?’
Griselda Marchbanks spoke up. ‘We have, of course, already received everyone’s money, Miss Granger, but what is your sense of the level of … customer satisfaction, as it were?’
‘Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,’ Hermione said, ‘but we will send a follow-up questionnaire by owl, in a week or ten days. Those responses will be compiled and presented to you at the next meeting.’
Marchbanks surprised Hermione greatly by beginning to applaud, and soon all the Board of Governors—as well as the Headmaster and his deputy—were joining in. Then Lucius Malfoy came forward to shake Hermione’s hand and shepherd her to the door.
‘We won’t bore you with the remainder of our business, Miss Granger,’ he said smoothly.
And before she knew what was happening, Hermione was on the other side of the closed door.
Severus rose as Lucius returned to the table, and all eyes turned to him.
‘I would like to speak with you about a new problem which has come to light in just the last twenty-four hours,’ he said gravely. ‘It has come to my attention that we as an institution of learning have completely failed to provide satisfactory service to our Muggle-born students.’
Chatter broke out instantly, questions peppering the Headmaster, and he flipped open a leather folder and withdrew a stack of parchment. He took one and handed it to Minerva, who sat to his left. ‘Take one and pass it on,’ he said. ‘You’ll find all the pertinent data here—and once we have covered it, I will have a proposed solution to present to you, as well.’
Hermione went up directly after dinner to dress for the ball. Severus had been uncommunicative regarding the remainder of the Governors’ meeting, but otherwise perfectly attentive.
In all the books she’d read, the balls had been fantastically romantic, and she’d long had a secret dream to attend one. Tonight, she would be granted her wish—and furthermore, she would have a partner whose very presence set her pulse to racing—provided he left his stupid card deck behind.
She combed her fringe forward, encouraging the natural curl into crimped waves. About her ears, she created corkscrew curls. The remaining length she coiled into a high, loose bun, allowing tendrils to curl above her nape. Then she took up a long scarf of cloth of gold and placed it on top of her head, just above her fringe. She crossed the scarf beneath the bun, creating a bandeau of gold on her brown hair, and wrapped the cloth around the bun, tucking in the ends and pinning them. There! A Grecian hairstyle of which any Regency lady would be proud. To finish her hair, she tucked a multitude of tiny, cut glass-tipped pins all around the bun, until it looked as if she had stars in her hair.
Her silk ball gown was simple but elegant. The white under dress was gathered just below her breasts and fell in a slim silhouette to her ankles. The sleeves were tiny puffs, edged in cloth of gold rosettes with white beading, and the same rosettes adorned the broad, square—and indecently low-cut—neckline. It was the overdress which satisfied her inner peacock. It was crimson silk with a short demi-train, embellished all the way down the front edges and all around the trailing hem with metallic, cloth of gold lace. The overdress tied closed beneath her breasts with a crimson satin ribbon. She completed her toilette with long gold evening gloves and crimson satin slippers.
‘You’re as pretty as a picture,’ the mirror informed her as she slipped out the door.
Severus waited for her in the Entrance Hall, very correctly attired in knee breeches and stockings, and she felt his eyes upon her when she stepped onto the landing. She walked carefully down the broad marble staircase, taking in every detail of the world she had created.
There were other people milling about the Entrance Hall, talking and laughing together, but neither Severus nor Hermione were particularly aware of them. He never looked away from her face, and the force of his regard was such that she was unable to take her eyes from his. He met her at the foot of the stairs and lifted her gloved hand to his lips.
‘Your beauty enchants me beyond reason, Milady,’ he said quietly.
There was no sardonic twist to his lips, no trace of mockery in his tone: He seemed entirely in the moment, just as she was. Without waiting for a reply, he tucked her hand into his arm and led her into the dream.
The Great Hall had been transformed into a ballroom hung with ivory silk. Chandeliers full of candles hovered high overhead, and the musicians played tunefully and well. The room was filled with ladies in colourful ball gowns and gentlemen, dressed precisely in black and white. The one exception was Xenophilius Lovegood, whose black coat and breeches had been charmed to shiny chartreuse, and his once-white shirt front was fuchsia beneath his unaltered white cravat. The lady clinging worshipfully to his arm was Professor Trelawney, who had matched her gown’s colour exactly to her escort: Chartreuse tulle over chartreuse satin, trimmed in fuchsia lace.
The sets began forming for a country dance, and Severus raised an interrogatory brow. ‘Shall we?’ he asked.
‘If you like,’ Hermione said, feeling a bit awkward with him. He seemed different in a way she could not precisely pinpoint.
‘I don’t know what your intentions for this evening are, but mine is to dance with you until dawn,’ he said firmly as they took their places, ‘so do your duty dances now. Once the waltzing begins, you’re all mine.’
Hermione stood up with several other men after Severus. She danced with George, with Neville, and with Draco, who danced divinely.
‘Who won the Quidditch match?’ she him asked idly.
Draco blanched. ‘What are you talking about?’
She laughed softly. ‘Don’t forget who my closest friends are,’ she reminded him. ‘Did you really think you were pulling the wool over my eyes? I didn’t mind, but I’m curious to know who won.’
‘We won,’ Draco said with smug satisfaction. ‘Harry outflew Krum. I knew he would.’
Hermione was pleased to hear the pride in Draco’s voice. ‘Aren’t you going to dance with Harry?’ she teased him.
Draco rolled his eyes. ‘If we can ever work out who’s going to lead, we might.’
When eleven o’clock came, Hermione was glad of the opportunity to partake of supper. There were bowls of iced champagne punch, jellies and creams, fruits and compotes, and savoury dishes as well. Severus seated her at a table with her particular helpers and their partners, and he excused himself to her, strolling away to speak to Kingsley Shacklebolt. Hermione was surprised to see the Minister present at the ball, but very glad he was there. It made it all seem very important.
But the happenings at her table were interesting enough to hold her attention whilst she sipped punch and nibbled sweets. It was illuminating to see all the couples who had paired up over the last week, and she felt a glimmer of pride. If she hadn’t proposed Regency Week as a way to raise money for Hogwarts, would these people have found one another? It was the romantic atmosphere that turned one’s thoughts to matters of the heart, and it did Hermione’s heart good to see her friends and helpers coupled with likely—and unlikely!—partners.
For instance, she would never have imagined Viktor as a man who would be attracted to Pansy Parkinson, but they seemed enamoured of one another, and Pansy’s parents even seemed to approve of the Bulgarian. She also would never have believed that Leticia Mortelle, with her reserved manner and scintillating wit, would give way to Lucius Malfoy’s persistent attentions, but the enormous, glittering stone on Leticia’s left hand seemed to tell a different story: Even scarily clever women could fall in love when the irresistible blond came along.
Mr Lovegood and Professor Trelawney defied comprehension, and she made no effort to categorise them. Perhaps, rather than an improbable couple, they were simply made for each other.
It made her particularly happy to see Penny with Finbar Quigley. Penny really had met her ‘flying man’, just as Trelawney had predicted, and from the way they looked at one another, it was a strong bet that their relationship was progressing nicely.
Even more gratifying was the happiness of her oldest, dearest friends. Harry and Draco were the most far-fetched couple ever, but they were obviously well on their way to falling in love. Ron, who had been her first lover—whom she might have married, if he’d ever bothered to ask her, a truly frightening thought!—had thrust her into Severus’ arms, however unintentionally, and now he seemed to glow beneath the ardent, continuous attentions of Romilda Vane. Neville was firmly bound in the toils of his pretty, young Veela girl, and George was becoming more his old self every day, now that Luna had stepped in to fill the void in his life.
Severus was beside her again so quietly that it surprised her when he spoke.
‘Will you walk with me in the garden?’ he asked. ‘Take a turn in the fresh air, before revisiting the dance floor?’
‘That sounds wonderful,’ she said, standing and going with him out into the velvet black night.
The air was cool but felt wonderful on her skin after her exertions. The stars glittered, the moon shone, and each breath she drew was redolent of roses.
Severus conjured a shawl, which he draped over her shoulders, and they strolled down the path. Hermione held his arm, resisting the urge to rub her face against his coat. How could she tell him that she wanted him? Not just for today, but for (always her unruly mind whispered) long enough for them to see if they were as good a match in truth as they felt in what very little practice they’d had.
‘Hermione, I would like to ask you a question,’ he said, and her heart began to race.
Was he thinking what she was thinking?
‘Yes?’ she said.
‘What do you know of the plight of the Muggle-born students who were forced out of school the year of the war?’ he asked.
Hermione blinked. That wasn’t exactly what she had expected from him—not when the Regency lady and gentleman were walking alone in the garden beneath the moon on the night of the fancy dress ball …
‘Hermione?’ he prompted.
Focus, she told herself.
‘I know some of them were put back in Muggle school by their parents, who were understandably unimpressed with what they saw of the wizarding world,’ Hermione said. ‘I can’t blame them, although it is sad that those wizards and witches will never learn to use their magic properly.’
‘Dennis Creevey is the one who brought the problem to my attention,’ Severus said. ‘He was paid to come to this event and spy on us and take pictures for a tabloid—Rita Skeeter’s rag.’
Hermione’s indignation flared like Fiendfyre. ‘That … that insect had the nerve to do that?’ she cried. ‘And Dennis! How could he?’
‘He needed the paid work,’ Severus replied steadily. ‘He didn’t finish his schooling in either the Muggle or the wizarding schools, and he is not qualified to do very much at all. When I became aware of his dilemma, I asked Minerva to help me gather information. There are an appalling number of Muggle-born students who have slipped through the cracks of wizarding education.’
Hermione stopped in the path, her mind working. ‘Term begins in less than a month!’ she said. ‘Do you have time to plan a remedial curriculum and contact the students’ families to get their agreement to bring them back to Hogwarts?’
The moonlight did not fully illuminate his hawkish countenance, which appeared now as a series of long planes and jutting angles, but she could see the smile that curved his thin lips. ‘I can see we are of the same mind,’ he commented, turning and beginning to lead her back to the castle. ‘Yes, I presented the problem to the Governors today, and they have voted unanimously to provide their full support of the Muggle-born Reclamation Project.’
Hermione squeezed his arm. ‘That’s wonderful! But you’re going to need a better name than that. And where will the funds come from? How will you pay for it?’
He darted a sly, sidelong look at her. ‘Do you imagine that I have not made a plan?’ he teased.
Hermione laughed. ‘I beg your pardon, sir!’
They entered the drawing room again, where the Minister for Magic was addressing everyone, praising the event, the funds it raised, and the people who made it all possible. This was met by thunderous applause from the assembled guests. Next, Lucius Malfoy took the floor and began to speak of the plan for contacting and correcting the educational deficits of the Muggle-born students left behind by the war.
‘Clearly, you can perceive the urgent need to rectify this problem, which came upon the affected students due to no fault of their own,’ Lucius said.
There was a general murmur of agreement from the crowd.
‘Therefore, we are asking you, once again, to open your generous hearts to fund this program, which will be of short duration but incalculable value to the wizarding world at large. You may give a cheque drawn on your bank to any member of the Board of Governors, as well as the Headmaster or the Deputy Headmistress. If you prefer to make your donation in gold, we ask that you leave it with Professor McGonagall, who will be at a table in the Entrance Hall for the rest of this evening and again in the morning. Thank you for your support for Hogwarts!’
The gathered witches and wizards clapped again, and there was even some foot stomping as they congratulated themselves on their good works.
Lucius held out his hand to Professor Mortelle, and she, stunning in azure satin, moved to stand by his side. ‘On a personal note,’ the handsome blond continued, ‘I would like to announce my engagement to this incomparable lady, who will become my wife at Christmas.’
Hermione glanced at Severus, to share his joy for his friend, but she found him watching her, as if he weren’t listening to Lucius at all. She cocked her head slightly to one side, wondering, but he neither spoke nor looked away.
‘The musicians are tuning up again,’ he said. ‘Shall we return to the ballroom?’
It wasn’t how she had imagined it—but it was everything she dreamed of.
He led her into the dance, declining to relinquish her to another gentleman for the rest of the evening. It would have been shocking and improper conduct for a true Regency lady, but Hermione made no objection. She was too busy losing herself in each moment.
Try as she might to remain completely cognizant of every aspect of the remainder of that night, Hermione found that much of the time passed in a blur of detail—which dance they performed, who spoke to them between sets, what the other ladies were wearing—whilst each expression on Severus’ indecipherable face and every nuance of emotion she felt were engraved indelibly on her heart.
When he smiled at me so, I felt thus, she thought, twirling in his embrace upon the dance floor, all the other people but a background upon which this, the most fantastical night of her life, played out. The hour grew late, and the couples dropped out two by two, murmuring of an early morning, of packing and leaving and going back home.
But Hermione shut them out of her mind. She wouldn’t think about dismantling this dream—about packing away her beautiful Regency clothes and pulling on her jeans and tee-shirts—she couldn’t think of those things, not when the music played and the candles burned and the wizard who had stolen her heart held her in his arms and danced.
There were four couples left, then three, and the only ones still on the floor were Lucius and Leticia and Severus and Hermione. The musicians continued to play—had Hermione imagined Lucius amongst them, and gold changing hands?—and Severus abandoned the proper distance of Regency times and gathered her closer, until her cheek was pressed to his shoulder and his face was buried in her hair.
If time could stop, she thought, breathing deeply of all the scents that would forevermore mean ‘Severus Snape’ to her, if I could live always, entirely in this moment, I could never want for more.
But there was more. There were his half-mast lids above midnight eyes, which closed just before his mouth captured hers. There were his demanding lips, his insidious, searching tongue, and the strength of his crushing arms. There was his mind, as quick and sure as her own, his wit and intelligence and most of all, his honour. Oh yes, she knew there was more, and as sweet as this was—as sure as she was that this was all she would ever have of him—she ached for him in a way that was as elemental as fire and as old as time itself.
Still, time was a ruler as unbending as Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. Despite her desperate desire to stop it, the minutes passed, and at half past five o’clock in the morning, dawn broke.
‘That’s it, folks!’ the lead fiddler called out as the ceiling of the Great Hall reflected the rising sun. ‘Thanks for having us! Good night—and good morning!’
Lucius raised a hand in farewell before escorting Leticia away, and Hermione stood alone with Severus in the ballroom, which the light of day was converting back to an oversized dining hall.
‘It’s so hard to let it go,’ Hermione said softly.
‘Not as hard as letting you go,’ he told her.
She asked, knowing his answer.
‘Will you come—’ she began.
His lips twisted in a crooked smile, and he placed a finger over her lips. ‘Bed chambers are for sleeping,’ he told her. ‘And already it’s a new day—one in which there is much demanding my attention.’
House-elves flooded the hall, dervishing madly about the room to return it to its proper state for serving breakfast.
‘We is sorry, Headmaster Snape, sir,’ Herpie the house-elf squeaked, ‘but work needs doing!’
Severus did not move from his place nor respond to the elf; he was looking into Hermione’s face.
‘You’ve done this for a year,’ he said, indicating the Regency ballroom, ‘and you’ve done it magnificently.’
Hermione stifled a sob and whispered, ‘Thank you for saying so.’
‘This is my question for you, Milady,’ he continued, his voice caressing, his eyes searching her face for clues to she knew not what. ‘What are you going to do tomorrow?’
And with a final caress of his fingertip across her cheek, he turned and left her standing alone in the swiftly disintegrating illusion of a ballroom.
A/N: You may see Hermione’s ball gown here: