It took two days for some silver mist to gather at the tip of Hermione's wand and another day for her patronus to take form. By that point, everyone was getting impatient because she was only interested in mastering the spell, which pushed back to later the reinstatement of her memories, leaving them to wait with not much to do. Draco didn’t look to miffed at the delay though, busy as he was trying to contain his smugness at successfully casting a corporeal patronus before her, and one that wasn't even a ferret. Severus personally thought a tiny scorpion patronus was nothing to gloat about, but wisely kept his opinion to himself as that would defeat the purpose of getting his Slytherins to cast the Patronus just as well as any other Gryffindor.
He wasn't prepared to see yet another new patronus come soaring up to him that morning while he was in the shower. He stared at it for an instant, watching its fluffy tail bounce around like a crazy puffskein on a pepper-up high, expecting a message and all the while wondering who the hell it could possibly belong to. He passed in review the Hogwart’s staff, then the Order of the Phoenix and even St Mungo’s healers who sometimes urgently needed an obscure potion, then, as a last resort, past students. He thought one of them might have a rabbit, it had the same twitchy nose and long teeth as this patronus, but that was about as far as the similarities went and for the life of him, he couldn't find out who this blasted squirrel belonged to. They stared at each other, but it wasn’t even there to deliver a message as far as he could see and it vanished as suddenly as it had come, just when a wave of shampoo bubbles assaulted his eyes, which gave him ample reason to curse his heart out.
Leaving the bathroom in a foul mood, he almost bowled Hermione over because she was sitting right there in the hallway, apparently waiting for him.
“Did you see it?” she asked, which is when he finally realized who the patronus belonged to. He was getting sloppy if he hadn’t figured that out on his own, but in his defense, he’d fully been expecting an otter.
“I did. It’s not an otter,” he pointed out, because he might as well pretend he’d known all along, while he led her down the stairs.
“No, but I like this one better. Draco thinks it’s because I’m not using the same memory as before.”
“And what was that?”
“When I was invited to the Burrow for the first time to see Harry and Ron. I'd never been invited to a friend’s home before so I felt I had real friends for the first time, and that house is magical and so much fun and the food is really delicious too… but it wasn’t working for me anymore. They don’t… mean the same thing to me, that they did to her. I like Harry. He’s nice and brave, and loyal,” Severus rolled his eyes at words he’d heard a thousand times before, usually from rabbid fangirls. “But I don’t… connect to him, not the way I used to. Not like I do with you.”
She tilted her head in thought, as if trying to sort out her own muddled feelings and Severus hummed in understanding, doing his best not to show how pleased he was, before asking the logical question:
“You used a more recent memory, then, I take it?”
“A very recent one,” she said with a broad grin. “A very, very recent one,” she added with a purr, her voice laden with meaning and he couldn’t help but blush when he finally got it.
“Oh,” he replied while his mind couldn’t help but add a disbelieving: Really? “But-”
“Yes, yes, I know. No kissing until I’m fully healed. It’s blackmail, you know? I hope you feel bad about it.”
“About you sexually harassing me? Terrible,” he said with a chuckle although that wasn't at all the protest he was about to make. However, he couldn’t help but be relieved she was so persistent about… whatever they had going on. It was nice to feel so wanted for once, even if he couldn’t quite fathom why , and he was still expecting the other shoe to drop.
At the breakfast table, Draco and Krum were both ensconced in books, so much so they didn’t even glance up at their arrival. Unusual, to say the least, but the book covers were enough of an explanation: Muggle and Magical Wildlife of the British Isles was propped open in front of Krum’s bowl of cereal, while Draco held a slimmer volume of Spirit Animals and How They Affect your Psyche in one hand and a spoon in the other. They had obviously both seen Hermione's new Patronus. Draco was studying it as her healer and judging by the impressive stack of notes next to him which kept growing by the day, chances were high he would want to publish his findings. Hermione was a goldmine for him in his field. So, just as Severus was waiting for Hermione to heal for his own selfish reasons, so was Draco…
“What?” Draco asked, sounding offended.
“What what?” Severus replied.
“You're glaring at me. The last time you did that, I was about to blow up my cauldron, and I have no cauldron, so…. What's up?”
“Nothing. Reading up on squirrels?”
Draco nodded, his shoulders relaxing a fraction.
“Fascinating little creatures,” Draco began before giving him a rundown on the furry little pest with enthusiastic prompting starting with “Did you know?”
Of course, Severus did not a single thing about squirrels. He'd never had a reason to take an interest in them before and listened with half an ear while serving himself a blueberry muffin that disappeared from his plate as soon as he took his eyes off it in search of coffee.
“Interesting fact,” Krum said after wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Squirrels vill steal food from other animals vhenever they have the opportunity, vether they need to or not.”
“That explains a lot,” Severus muttered, looking at the incriminating crumbs on Hermione’s lips and sweater, recalling how she stole bacon from Hagrid’s plate every other morning at the castle.
“And did you know squirrels adapt easily to any environment and have quite the surviving skill set. They learn a lot through observation too, and you mentioned Hermione did just that in the forest, right?” Draco asked again. “It's really no wonder it became her patronus when you think about it. Are there a lot of squirrels in that forest?”
“I haven’t a clue. I don't use squirrels in potions,” Severus deadpanned. “I have rats for that.”
“I ate a squirrel once,” Hermione chipped in, just as matter of factly.
“Just once? I'm guessing it vas not very good?” Krum asked.
“No. Kinda...chewy,” she said, mimicking exaggerated chewing motions to get her point across. “Like snake. And snails. And-”
“Alright,” Draco cut in with a grimace, snapping his book close. “That's about as much weird conversation as I can take in one day. I suggest we start filling up that frizzy little head again. I do have a job waiting for me back home, you know.”
Hermione didn't need telling twice and followed Severus to the living-room while the boys retrieved their notes and the vials of memories, but she forwent her usual seat in favour of Severus’ lap. Not completely out of the ordinary, although the blush he felt creeping up his neck might give him away since he knew it was far from innocent now, and he simply had not been expecting it. He’d never quite gotten used to Hermione’s utter disregard for social conventions and thought he might never get over the surprise of having someone actually wanting to be close to him, to touch him so casually. Which she did, grabbing his hand and turning it this way and that, her tanned fingers ghosting over the numerous calluses, cuts and chemical stains he’d earned during his career as a Potions Master. Her own hands were riddles with thin lines of white scars she must have earned during her year on the run or in the forest. It was so mesmerising to watch the mingling of their hands that he didn’t even think of putting a stop to her exploration when they took her further up his wrists, but thankfully, she quickly gave up after fiddling with the row of buttons for a while without results, and furtively deposited a kiss where cuffs met skin instead. Unfortunately, the soft sound drew their companions attention away from their whispered conversation and back to them.
Severus tried his best to scowl their curious stares away, but it only raised their eyebrows and curiosity up a notch.
“Severus?” Draco drawled, taking a seat facing them. He was smirking, the little bastard. “Is there anything we should be made aware of?”
“Nothing that’s any of your business,” Severus muttered.
“Very well, I understand,” Draco replied, folding all too easily for a Slytherin and a Malfoy. Severus narrowed his eyes as the blonde shifted gracefully in his chair. “So, Hermione? Anything new with you?”
She grinned wolfishly.
“Why, Pretty? Don’t tell me you’re jealous?”
Draco turned an unsightly shade of crimson that clashed terribly with his blond white hair and made Severus bark out a laugh. Served him right for being so smug and nosy. Severus squeezed Hermione’s hand in thanks and she beamed up at him then turned to Krum who was still standing hesitantly in front of them, holding the little chest of memory vials against him.
“It is alright, Her-my-own-ninny. I understand.”
Krum did look resigned, but he gave them a nod and continued as if nothing was out of the ordinary, for which Severus was quite grateful. He hated being the center of attention, and as much as he enjoyed her attention, he resolved himself to dump Hermione off his lap and into her own chair so they could get on with business. Draco was right in that they were quickly running out of time.
“Vhat is planned for today? Vill ve finish vith all the memories at once?”
“There’s quite a lot from her year on the run,” Draco said, considering the list. “And they’re not very happy memories. We’ll see how you deal with them one at a time, Hermione. Alright with you?”
She shrugged, an impatient get-on-with-it look in her eyes.
And so it began: her flight from Bill and Fleur’s wedding, their first fight against Death-Eaters in the middle of muggle London, their camping trip all across the countryside, their uncertainty and doubts as to what they could and should do, breaking into the Ministry and dealing day to day with a Horcrux, but also with the cold and lack of food. But Hermione took it all in stride, as if she was assimilating her memories easier now that she was more herself. Draco compared it to fitting square pegs in a square hole where it had been round before. She even snorted at the memory where Ronald Weasley abandoned her and Potter, which wasn’t quite the reaction they’d been expecting.
“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Hermione shrugged off when they asked how she was feeling, as they did after every new memory they inserted. “You can’t trust a red-head.”
The three of them exchanged glances, wondering what to say to that. Grigore having been a red-head was surely a very important factor in that statement, but…
“I honestly have no counter-argument to that,” Severus finally replied, thinking of Dumbledore, Lily, the Weasley twins in particular, but most Weasleys in general, and coming to the conclusion that you really couldn’t, in fact, trust a red-head.
“Don’t look at me,” Draco said. “I never liked the Weasels. Long-standing feud between our families, remember?”
“I don’t know many red-heads,” Krum shrugged, “But I doubt hair colour reflects character.”
“Of course not,” Severus agreed politely while thinking what a bloody coincidence it was red-heads always made his life hell.
Once Hermione had had enough for the day, and Draco had nothing more to observe or ask her for his ever-growing medical file, the other two wizards made themselves suspiciously scarce. Not that Severus was complaining. If he had to see Draco’s smug look and eyebrow wriggle one more time, he was going to hex his manhood off, the Malfoy line be damned. Looking at her closer though, Severus couldn’t note any glaringly obvious changes in the witch, nothing like the way she used to change after ingesting new memories. No, it was more subtle now. She expressed herself better mostly, as her vocabulary and grasp of abstract concepts expanded. On the other hand, she was less… exuberant, he supposed, more poised and mature. Like the old Hermione Granger would have been had she been given the chance to continue living amongst her kind after the war. She still didn’t reject him though, on the contrary. She cuddled against him even before the other two wizards had left and Severus had a sneaking suspicion she was making a statement, like… claiming him as hers. Was that something a pack Alpha would do? Was it something Hermione Granger would have done? In all honesty, he was too afraid to ask and preferred to ignore the whole issue altogether for now.
“What’s your patronus?” she asked suddenly while they watched the squirrel patronus she’d conjured to amuse Voldy bounce over the table. The two-tailed mutt was yipping excitedly after it, looking confused every time he lunged at it only to land flat on his muzzle as he went through the conjuration. Hermione found it hilarious, and even he had to admit it had entertainment value. Voldy was as rash and stubborn as any Gryffindor he’d ever met and he hoped his namesake was suitably horrified by it.
“It’s been years since I last cast it,” Severus sidestepped.
“That’s not an answer. Draco wouldn’t tell me either.”
“That’s because Draco doesn’t know.”
Or at least, he didn’t think so. It would be embarrassing if the young Malfoy realized his Patronus matched Potter’s. He might get the wrong idea.
“It’s not important,” he finally added when he saw Hermione about to ask him again. “Wouldn’t you rather I show you how to use your Patronus as a messenger?”
Her eyes lit up and for once, she forgot all about nagging him until she got her way. Or maybe she’d just changed in that too. Knowledge before gossip. Improvement, for sure.
At dinner, Krum looked all solemn when he stood at the head of the table with an announcement. Their host had been disappearing regularly in the last few days and Severus hadn’t figured out why yet. Not that he cared. Not really.
“I have bad news, badder news and good news. Vich vould you like me to start vith?”
Severus sighed because he had the feeling things had been going on too smoothly lately, so he braced himself for the worse.
“Just get on with it,” he grumbled.
“The bad news!” Hermione chirped as if it was a good thing and dissipated the tense mood without meaning to.
“Bring on the worse, Vikky!” Draco cheered. “Might as well start big.”
“That’s the spirit!” Hermione said with a grin and offered her hand for a high-five that puzzled Draco for a moment before he understood and tentatively clapped their hands together.
“Your press, and by that I mean Rita Skeeter and a couple of her minions, are sniffing around, looking for a scoop.”
“What? She should still be in Azkaban, or awaiting trial or... something!” Severus let go of his outrage in a sigh. “Our judiciary system is a joke.”
That vile woman had broken into a school full of children for fuck’s sake, using an illegal animagus form to top it off. How could that not be enough to keep her under lock and key for at least a little while?
“Yes, I vas getting to that. My sources say she blackmailed a few vell placed people and the charges vere mysteriously dropped.”
“You’d think a war would change how the system works,” Draco said under his breath.
“Not to vorry. I have taken the liberty to leave a false trail for her to follow,” Krum said with a truly Slytherin smirk.
“Which will lead her…?” Severus prompted.
“Oh, I’m not sure. Maybe to a castle in the mountains vhich may or may not belong to a certain hermit vith a bat fetish. But I really couldn’t be sure, of course. I vouldn’t voluntarily put anyone in danger.”
To Count Dracula it was, then. How he wished he could see Skeeter’s painted face when she realized where she had landed her pointy heels. He hoped she'd annoy the legendary Count into biting her, and then keep her in the larder for his guests. It was probably too much to ask that she would use the opportunity to learn from her mistakes and stop “embellishing” her stories, or at least choose weaker enemies than Krum. The man was ruthless and certainly knew how to keep a grudge since he didn’t think Skeeter had actually published anything about the Quidditch star since his exploits, or lack thereof, at the Triwizard Tournament.
“Yes. I thought that vould please you, Severus,” Krum added, trying and failing at not grinning. “The other bad news concerns Voldy. I looked into the regulations concerning the importation of vild magical creatures and it is next to impossible to accomplish.”
Severus frowned. Hermione protested that she wasn't going to abandon her pet, not that he'd ever expected her to, but he hadn't thought it would be such a problem either. Voldy was just a tiny mutt without much magic or usefulness. But to be honest, Severus hadn't given their return much consideration. It had always seemed so far away, but it wasn't, not anymore. Draco only needed a couple more days to restore the last of her memories and check she had assimilated everything and was still mentally stable and physically healthy, and… that was all. They didn't need to dwell any longer. In truth, they could have left sooner if they had really wanted to but being far from their homeland had seemed safer for Hermione.
“Not really surprising since half the magical population in these parts is made of magical creatures. It is normal they vould want to protect themselves from being treated like cattle.”
Krum’s explanation was followed by a collective “Oh...” of understanding. They really should have anticipated such a problem. They could probably call on the vampires for a favour so they could all leave the country without all the hassle of going through magical customs, but that would mean they would owe the vampires a favour and no one wanted to have that sort of debt hanging over their heads. There was only one thing vampires were interested in and Severus was rather fond of keeping his blood in his veins.
“So what’s the good news?” he asked.
“Isn’t him getting rid of Skeeter the good news?” Draco replied.
Severus glanced at Krum who still looked inordinately happy over sending the woman to her probable death and shook his head.
“No. Looks like that was personal. Well, Krum?” he prompted.
“Luckily, I have an old friend who is on his vay through here and due to travel North. He vas very understanding and happy to help arrange a vay out of the country for you. Nobody vill be the viser you vere here or that you are bringing back some “extra baggage”,” he said, eyeing Voldy dubiously as he tore into one of his cushions with delighted growls. “As long as it behaves.”
“And how trustworthy is this friend?” Severus demanded.
“As good as family,” Krum assured. “Vell, he is technically family since he is a distant cousin by alliance on my mother’s side and is married to my second cousin’ daughter on my father’s side… But you know how it is.”
Severus snorted. It seemed purebloods here were as inbred as they were back home.
“Can’t we just get a portkey back?” Draco whined, reverting for the first time in a long while to his spoiled brat persona. Severus had thought, had hoped , that particular personality flaw had been dead and buried for good, but it had probably been too ingrained in his childhood for it to disappear completely. Spoiled rotten indeed.
“Are you good buddies with the Romanian Minister of Magic, Draco? I had no idea. I'm impressed,” Severus answered, his tone becoming more sarcastic with every word. “I don't think you realized all the favours Potter called in to get our little group here incognito, and that was without illegal contraband.”
“No, not me , but Viktor-” Draco said only to be cut off by the latter’s chuckle.
“I am famous,” Krum acknowledged. “But not Harry Potter famous.”
“So that’s settled then. When is he due? And how will we travel?”
They only had three days left until Krum’s… cousin, or whatever he was, was due to pick them up. Krum was being unnecessarily secretive about the means of transport if you asked him, but Severus had a sneaking suspicion it had more to do with their host being under some magical oath not to reveal anything rather than just plain stubbornness. Made sense if his cousin was willing to circumvent several national and international laws just to help out a bunch of strangers. His business probably wasn't what you’d call legal.
Unfortunately, they were now left with the worse of Hermione’s memories so he could only hope it was enough time to administer them all. He hated having to rush through something so important, but they didn't have much of a choice if they wanted to take Voldy back with them. Hermione didn't mind, or so she said, but Severus could see these darker memories were taking a toll on her.
“I'm fine ,” she insisted, and they might have believed her, if it wasn't for the nightmares.
They knew which memory was responsible of course. It was THAT one. The one they'd argued over non stop since Draco had rescued it from Grigore’s mind. The big question being what should be done with the horrific memory of her torture session with dear “Aunt Bella”. Draco’s opinion as a medical expert was that she should have it back, but his personal opinion was that he should have left it to rot in the vampire’s sick mind to be digested and forgotten by all. Krum was all for it and offered to simply throw the vial in the chimney and, you guessed it, “burn it vith fire” because nothing good would come out of giving it back to her. However, Severus thought she should have it back and embrace it. Hermione had been brave enough to endure the torture, all the while tricking Bellatrix into believing a big fat lie she'd made up on the spot. A Gryffindor outwitting a Slytherin was a feat in and of itself, not to mention under such conditions, so taking such accomplishments away from Hermione didn't seem fair. She'd owned those victories, those sacrifices. In the end, they agreed on only one point: Hermione should be the one to decide.
Severus knew she'd take the memory. The only one she'd rejected so far, she'd done so out of contempt for Dumbledore, but she wouldn't refuse a part of herself out of fear, not after she'd faced her worst fear in the flesh by duelling Grigore. Of course, that didn't mean Severus didn't feel guilty when Hermione woke up from a nightmare that night with a strangled scream and a sob. Severus was at her side in an instant, not because she was on his bed, she didn't do that anymore, sadly, but because he'd half been expecting it. As had Draco and Krum since they, like him, hadn't even bothered changing into their nightclothes. Instead, they made themselves comfortable on her bed or in the mismatched chairs furnishing her room and shared a hot chocolate, speaking in quiet tones of anything but the wicked witch of her nightmare until she fell asleep again. Draco too sometimes had nightmares of Bellatrix so he understood only too well what she was going through and he worried how such violent memories might affect her, not to mention tomorrow they would be returning memories of the Final Battle.
“We’ll just have to watched out for any sign of trauma,” Severus whispered in the hallway outside her room, keeping his voice down so as not to wake her.
“More than we already are?” Draco scoffed. “I don’t think that’s possible. I guess I’m just afraid we’ll be messing up everything after we obtained such good results.”
Severus pictured the Longbottoms and other people who’d lived through too much during the war and just broke down. After all, they didn’t know where her breaking point would be. He hated when Draco had a point.