Ten months after the war ended, Hermione decided that Professor Snape had brooded long enough.
Yes, he had killed Dumbledore -- his hand, at least, had wielded the wand -- but it had long since been proved to the wizarding world’s satisfaction that he had done so under the greatest duress -- that it had all been part of Dumbledore’s Grand Plan to defeat Voldemort.
It had taken long explanatory speeches from Dumbledore’s Hogwarts portrait before McGonagall was convinced, but as Minerva went, so went the Order of the Phoenix, and by the time the war had been over for six months, the rest of the world believed Severus Snape entirely blameless. There was even talk of a medal.
Moody, the former Auror, still interrogated Dumbledore’s portrait from time to time, and came away mumbling strange things about something called “Stockholm Syndrome,” but everyone else was willing to welcome Snape back with arms that were, if not wide open, at least somewhat ajar.
Snape himself had, upon Voldemort’s death, swept off to a forbidding parcel of the Cornish shore, letting it be known in no uncertain terms that visitors were not welcome. Hermione pictured him living magic-less in a threadbare hut, emerging now and again to stalk the barren coastline or the sinister moors, perhaps rending his garments.
Well, there were limits, so -- nearly a year after the war’s end -- Hermione one day performed a simple Locator Charm, packed a few things, and Apparated to a small village on the southwestern coast.
Snape’s sense of drama did not extend to his living quarters after all, Hermione was pleased to discover. Instead of a ramshackle lean-to, Snape’s house was a pleasant little cottage, freshly whitewashed. There were even begonias flourishing in the small garden. She was tempted to Apparate straight into his sitting room, but decided upon reflection that would be impolite.
At her knock, he yanked open the door with a scowl, which she expected, and the expression of comical shock that overtook his features upon seeing her was so much the way she had pictured it that she had to laugh. The scowl came quickly back.
“Miss Granger,” he spit out, showing no signs of welcoming her in.
She had rehearsed this; she was ready. “Severus,” she said brightly and swept past him. He was too surprised to do anything but let her pass. “It’s time you came back to Hogwarts.”
She studied the entryway. On the whole, she approved. The cottage had probably come furnished, but still, Snape had not swathed the walls in funereal black -- or worse, Slytherin green -- and had refrained from Conjuring cobwebs to fill the corners.
She strode confidently through the hall until she came to a small sitting room with a view of the garden. Dropping her valise onto the floor, she settled onto an overstuffed striped sofa. He followed her into the room, surprise apparently rendering him speechless. Good, thought Hermione, that will make things easier.
“Your house is nicer than I expected.” She frowned at an empty vase on the low table in front of her. Pulling her wand from her sleeve she Summoned a few of the begonias in through the open window. “That’s better,” she said watching them settle themselves in the vase.
As usual, Apparation had taken something out of her. Yawning, she kicked off her shoes and swung her legs onto the couch.
Snape finally recovered the power of speech. “What in Merlin’s name do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, eyes bulging.
“Your couch will survive my feet on it,” she dismissed him crossly. “Now, about your coming back to Hogwarts --”
“Miss Granger! What is the meaning of this ridiculous charade? What,” he pointed to her bag as though it were some first year’s more than usually disgusting potion attempt, “is that?”
“That’s a suitcase,” she replied patiently.
“I realize th --” He stopped himself. “Why is it in my sitting room?”
“I should think that was obvious. I’ll be staying with you a while, Severus.”
Hermione had never seen anyone actually reel before, but Snape managed it quite neatly. He staggered, then jabbed a hand against the wall to keep his balance. She could see the thoughts warring in his face -- there was too much he wanted to say -- and after a few incoherent sputters he grasped onto the simplest.
“Do not use my first name.” He tried to muster a sneer. “You will call me Profess --”
He broke off. Hermione seized her advantage. “But you’re not a professor anymore. That’s why you have to come back to Hogwarts.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” he muttered, sinking into an armchair.
“Well,” said Hermione, standing up. “That’s all right. I’ve got loads of time to change your mind. I’ll make dinner then, shall I?”
“Professor McGonagall’s offered me a research fellowship,” she told him over the omelet she’d made for a light supper.
He was eating, which was a promising sign, though she’d had to hold up the entire conversation herself -- Snape’s only contributions consisting of occasional glares.
“I was thinking of doing it in Potions,” she continued. “That would mean I’d take the first and second years’ lessons, and do research in the afternoons.”
She refilled his water glass. “McGonagall’s making changes. She’s asked for suggestions. You have ideas about how the school should be run, I know.”
He was silent, refusing to look at her. “She wants Hogwarts to be a leading contributor to Magical Knowledge.”
She could tell he wanted to look interested. “We’ll have to work together very closely, of course, since you’ll be my advisor. I was thinking of trying to refine Veritaserum. Klavoski’s done some marvelous work on --”
“Klavoski’s a hack,” Snape spit out in spite of himself.
“Oh, no. Have you read his paper in April’s Magical Medicine Monthly on targeted potion efficacy? He posits --”
“I knew him at school. The man couldn’t Conjure water if his hair was on fire. Talentless hack.”
“I think he’s brilliant.” Her eyes shone. “We should try to recreate his experiments on Flobberworms. If our data matches --”
“That study was fundamentally flawed. He only used --”
“Immature worms, I know, but I still think --”
“You need fully grown Flobberworms to hope to extrapolate your data to Wizards. A third year knows that.”
“Ah, but he fed them ground Nightshade --”
“Then he would get pickled Flobberworms. Very useful.”
“Not if he kept their environment completely dark. I --”
“Miss Granger.” He held up a hand. “This very entertaining conversation is pointless, as I have no intentions of returning.” He put his hand to his forehead. “And now I am extremely tired. Please leave. You may tell Minerva you tried.”
“Oh, I’m not here for Minerva.” She smiled. “You go ahead and go to bed if you’re tired, Severus. I’ll do the washing up.”
She had yet to see any signs of rent garments, and someone was taking care of the begonias, but Snape was brooding, Hermione knew.
Once he’d seen she had no intentions of leaving, he’d taken to simply ignoring her, chivalry or apathy preventing him from expelling her bodily. Happily, she had discovered the cottage had a spare bedroom, and absent any instructions from her host, she’d made herself at home. Thus she’d had plenty of opportunities to observe his gloom.
He would wake up in the mornings and walk the moors -- I knew it, thought Hermione -- before returning to the lunch of sandwiches she’d started preparing for him every day. Merlin knew what he’d been eating before she got there -- nothing, judging by his even more than usually skeletal appearance. In the afternoons he’d disappear into his study, reading obsessively until dinner. Hermione had observed him with spellbooks, Muggle novels, scholarly dissertations -- the cottage’s collection was nothing if not eclectic. He didn’t seem to care what read; she suspected he didn’t even comprehend the words. When she spotted him with a copy of Gilderoy Lockhart’s Magical Me, she was convinced of it.
In the evenings, he would deign to eat dinner with her. She was beginning to get rather good at one-sided conversations. In the course of a week, she’d discussed the possibilities of incorporating low-grade magic into Muggle dentistry, informed him of the furor over the verifiable discovery of Crumple-horned Snorkacks in the Lake District, and debated whether Ron’s new romance with Hannah Abbot would work out -- doubtful, she concluded.
She always finished by asking him if he was ready to return to Hogwarts yet. She never got an answer.
The second week, Hermione decided she had better intensify her campaign. The new Hogwarts term would be beginning in less than a month, and they still needed time to set up their potions laboratory. She had some wonderful ideas for modernizing the old dungeon.
She began accompanying him on his morning rambles. He never stopped her -- only threw her a glare now and then, but she was used to that by now. She would talk to him about Hogwarts, or potions, or whatever struck her mind. Once she compared him to Heathcliff roaming over the moors, wild and unkempt. The glower he sent her proved he had a greater familiarity with Muggle literature than she’d thought.
He still wouldn’t agree to return to school, but she knew he liked her company. When the laundry -- Hermione preferred the smell of line-hung clothes to those that had been magically cleaned -- had kept her late one morning, Snape waited for her. He pretended he was desperately anxious to finish the chapter he was reading of Eldred Worple’s Succubus Sisters: Vampire Brides Who Love Too Much, but Hermione wasn’t fooled.
The morning of their fourth walk, Hermione brought a basket with her. She could see Snape biting his tongue to keep from asking her what it was for.
“I’ve decided to gather some fresh heather,” she told him. “It’s awfully good for memory potions, you know.”
“Hogwarts has several decades supply of dried heather. Surely you haven’t managed to waste it all. Ah,” he nodded, an idea occurring to him. “It’s been damaged. Longbottom or Weasley have been at it.”
“No,” she laughed. “I just like the fresh kind.”
Truthfully, Hermione could not have cared less about heather -- fresh, dried, or fricasseed. But she knew what she would look like roaming over the moors with a basket of heather -- hair flowing in the wind, sunlight glinting in her wild tresses as she bent to pick the wildflowers. She had tried patience with Snape. It was time to go on the attack.
As it happened, Hermione became so interested in the wild herbs and flowers she was finding, that she forgot entirely to be alluring. She plucked a strange yellow blossom with three uneven petals.
“I’m sure this is a magical plant. Nun’s Heart, perhaps, or --”
“It’s Poison Poppy,” Snape replied, “I’d put it down soon, if I were you. In thirty seconds the venom will penetrate your skin and I’ll have to cut your fingers off."
She dropped it quickly and he continued. “You might consider, perhaps, that you don’t seem quite suited for Potions.”
She nodded. “I still have a lot to learn. That’s why you have to come back.”
“Hermione,” he said. She noted the unconscious use of her first name -- he had noticed her gleaming hair, then. “I did actually kill the only man who ever trusted me. I have no desire to return to that world.”
“Yes,” she replied, “and you’ve tortured yourself just long enough, I think. If I perform Cruciatus on you a few times, would that speed up your penance?”
He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “Why are you so anxious I come back? Get someone else to do your bloody Potions residency with. Get Klavoski. The man can’t hold a job. He’s probably available.”
She looked at him closely. His eyes were tired; the months of self-flagellation showed in newly etched creases on his face. The strain was obvious in the lines of his body, and the wind had turned his cheeks pink. She made a decision.
Stepping forward, she kissed him quickly, pressing her lips to his before she had a chance to change her mind. He froze -- too surprised, seemingly, to pull away, or kiss her back.
She summoned all her courage and put her arms around his neck. After a frighteningly long moment, she felt his arms circle her ribs. He pulled her closer, and then he was kissing her back, and it felt right, like something they should have done long ago.
After a moment, he pulled away. His face was puzzled, his cheeks red. She could feel her own heart beating rapidly.
“Is this a ploy?” he asked, dazed.
She laughed. “No. No ploy.”
“Then why --”
“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.” She smiled. “And so have you.”
“I have?” he asked vaguely.
“Yes,” she nodded. Then felt suddenly panicked. “Haven’t you?”
“I -- I don’t --” he stammered. His eyes darted violently, as though he were seeking escape. She had a wild thought that the stretched-wire tension in his body would make him literally explode, and dimly wondered how she would explain that back at Hogwarts. Then he suddenly heaved a great sigh and pulled her to him, crushing his mouth to hers.
“Yes,” he said between kisses, “I have.”
“I hope you don’t think I will be returning to Hogwarts just because you’ve condescended to shift our relationship onto a physical plane,” he said as they walked back to the cottage.
“Oh,” she said, disappointed, trying to hold his hand. “No?”
“No,” he replied firmly. “I will be returning to Hogwarts because Minerva is clearly in over her head. If her plans for the school are to amount to anything she will obviously need my help.”
“Obviously,” agreed Hermione, managing to catch and retain his hand a whole half minute.
“Now is undoubtedly the time to implement the Advanced Potion and Defense Against the Dark Arts Cluster Curriculum I’ve been thinking about.”
“Oh, yes,” agreed Hermione. “You know who would be wonderful for that? Klavoski, if we can get him. He has some brilliant ideas about curses in potion form and --”
“A potion-based curse would have a half-life so short as to be untenable.”
“Not if you kept the medium below the freezing point.”
“Impossible,” he scoffed, pulling his hand from hers, but leaning over for a quick kiss.
“No,” she said. “Honestly. Just listen.”
She recaptured his hand.