"I'm not getting in there."
Ron stared at me, his eyes widening under furrowing brows. "But Hermione, it's a balloon!"
"Yes, I can see that."
I sighed, running a hand through my dark hair, which I'd spent a long time detangling and brushing that afternoon. Ron loved it when my hair shone, and he'd been so excited about my "surprise." I was surprised, but only by how little my boyfriend appeared to know me even after everything we'd been through.
The word inexplicably crawled through my mind as if searching for purchase. I ignored it. I always did.
"I thought you liked hot air balloons," said Ron, holding up a finger to the balloon operator.
The sharp-faced, older woman's expression telegraphed boredom as she replied, "You paid for the hours. You spend 'em however you like."
"Ron," I continued, "you know that I'm afraid of heights and fire, and I've never expressed a desire to ride in a—"
"But it's romantic!" Ron placed his mustard-stained hands on my shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze. "I wanted this to be romantic."
I tipped up onto my toes and stared into his uncertain eyes while breathing in his cologne. It smelt of citrus and the piney scent of a forest in which I'd spent, I suddenly realized, entirely too much time. The smile I willed onto my face was slight.
"You should go. I can see how much you'd like to."
"Hermione, please come with me. It's perfectly—"
"No," I told Ron, shrugging off his hands. "I'm afraid of heights and fire, I don't find hot air balloons romantic, and . . . and I've told you before, I don't want to marry you."
The balloon operator muttered something vaguely profane as she turned away.
"What?" asked Ron. "What did you say to me?"
"You brought me here to propose again, didn't you?" I asked, raising my eyebrows.
Ron buttoned up his coat, his face paling. "Yes, I did. Is that all right?"
"It isn't," I said, shaking my head. "I do love you, you know that, but we're not right for each other, not long term."
"But I love you, too, and—"
"You don't know or care that I'm afraid. Of. Heights. And. Fire. That's a problem, Ron, and you know as well as I do that it isn't our only one." I took a deep breath and let it out. I was really going to say it. "Goodbye."
Walking away, I felt like utter shit: it had taken three break ups for me to finally walk away from Ron and mean it; how could I have wasted so much time paying attention to someone who didn't ever pay attention to me?
"Being complacent about how things would turn out for him, you mean."
Harry laid a hand on one of mine. "I believe that's what I just said." His smile was warm and understanding.
"I'm not particularly put out." I replied.
"But you are afraid of heights and fire."
I couldn't help myself. I laughed, and he laughed with me. It was companionable, which was how being with Ron had felt for several months—when I wasn't irritated with him, of course.
"Some people have make-up sex," I blurted. "Oh, Harry! I shouldn't have said that."
"Ginny and I don't," he told me, hiding his face in his mug of butterbeer.
"Ginny and I don't have make-up sex." Harry flushed. "We, er, we have shout-y sex. When we're angry, I mean."
"Well, I suppose that's one way to go about it," I told him, not knowing what else to say—because that would mean admitting that I knew much, much more about his and Ginny's sex life than I wished to know. "At least you never go to, um, sleep angry."
Harry put down his mug, his eyes widening. "You discuss it? I mean, us? Our sex life? Girls do that?"
Dutifully, Harry replied, "Women. Witches. You do that?"
I grinned and enjoyed the way in which Harry's ears were purpling in embarrassment. "So, Ron's all right then?"
"Yeah, yes. Yes, I'd say so."
"Ah." I wasn't surprised. Of course Ron had moved on; being alone wasn't his strong suit. "Lavender?"
Harry bit his lip and nodded. "Is it all right with you if I'm . . . supportive of them?"
"Of course," I replied, automatically.
I shoved my hands in my pockets and frowned as a memory tried to surface. Had I enjoyed it, the . . . laughter? In the distance, the wailing of a distraught child met my ears. Someone had taken a fall, but his parents seemed to have him well in hand. I returned to my thoughts. Yes, the laughter. I had enjoyed hearing the families' laughter.
"I'm just not certain I want any children of my own," I murmured, looking over the grounds of the park at all the picnickers.
"Then don't have them."
"Oh, it's you," I said, turning to find the balloon operator behind me and thinking, and you're why I'm here, aren't you? There was something oddly familiar about the woman.
"They'll tell you that brats are a blessing. It's a lie."
"Surely they're not all bad," I replied.
"Mine was a tiny terror, always getting himself into scrapes. Grew up, fell for the wrong girl, then the wrong . . . employer."
"Oh, I see," I said, not seeing much of anything because the woman had abruptly pulled her cap back down over her eyes.
"Good of you not to marry that bloke just because it was expected. Never a good idea, that."
I wasn't certain what I was doing, having such a conversation with such a stranger, but having it, I was. "Was . . . was your marriage—"
"Not that it's any of your business, but yes, and no, and I don't remember. We drank, my man and I."
"Oh, not so much that I couldn't care for my boy, not so much as that, not often, but . . . . But we weren't as happy as we might have been if we'd wed because we wanted to and not because it was expected. Because . . . because I was expecting." The balloon operator pulled at her nose, sniffed, and turned away.
She didn't turn. "Why?"
"I know you, don't I?" I asked, confused but certain. "You look so very familiar to me."
"That's because you notice things, girl." She turned to face me, smirking. "But no, I'm not who you think you know."
She took off her hat, and I gasped to see her clearly: once-black hair, black eyes, and a chin so severe it practically took points. "You're Mrs Snape!"
"No, I'm Eileen Prince. We gave Severus Toby's name. I never took it. I never take anything that isn't mine.
"Why?" I asked, still rather stunned to find myself in the small hut that Eileen used in her business.
The building was just big enough to hold a table, three chairs, and a bureau in which she kept balloon tickets and a cache of tea and sugar. On top of the bureau sat a kettle upon a spirit stove.
"Because I need someone to talk sense into my boy. He shouldn't be hanging in this hovel."
I sat up straight. "'Hanging about', you mean?"
"You know very well I don't."
"Eileen, are you telling me that Professor Snape's portrait is in your possession?"
One hadn't appeared at Hogwarts after his death, which had been a source of great consternation to Minerva, Harry, and Draco Malfoy. I had been of, well, two minds about it after taking in the damage to the school.
"An elf brought it. Apparently, it's customary for a family member to 'test' a portrait before it hangs—one conversation and done."
"Well, then why isn't—"
"Because I wouldn't talk to it, would I?" interrupted Eileen. "Life with Toby, life with us might not have been perfect, but that was no excuse to run off with the Death Eaters!"
"But," I began to say.
"And he choked on it, didn't he? Choked on ashes and bitterness and disappointment and stupidity!"
I swallowed. I knew something of Eileen's anger, a little something of it, at any rate. Still . . . .
"And to think his father went looking for him, begged him not to take that 'tattoo', as he called it, but it was too late. Severus was dead to us both long before that Riddle boy took him."
My eyes stung to think of my own family, and I thanked God and Merlin that I had been able to bring them home and back to themselves. I don't know what I would have done had I grown up as the professor apparently had.
"But you still love him, don't you?" I asked.
"You still love him. That's why you can't talk to him—and until you do, the elf won't be able to return his portrait to Hogwarts!"
Eileen's smirk returned. "Yes, you are as clever as I thought. You can do it."
I understood at once. "No, I can't. You have to verify—"
"No, someone who knows the boy has to ensure he's right for the hanging. And I'm not that woman. No, not anymore."
"Are you frightened that you won't know him, or that he won't know you?" I asked, genuinely curious.
"Nosy little thing, aren't you, Miss Afraid of Heights and Fire?"
I refused to be baited. "Did you know that your son could fly? Without a broom?"
"Oh, you mean like Voldywhatsit?" Eileen Summoned a bottle from the bureau and poured a deep measure of its contents into her tea. "How splendid."
Her tone of voice could have chilled her beverage; mine was certainly now far too cold to drink. I set it aside.
"What other interesting tricks did my little Sev learn out in the big bad pureblood world?"
I opened my mouth to reply and then closed it. "All right. I'll do it. I'll speak to him."
"Just like that?"
"We're thick as thieves on short acquaintance, aren't we? 'Just like that' seems to be my new way of going about things."
"And right you are, ducky," Eileen told me. "Life's too short to be any other way."
"Ahem," I said.
"Sod off. Sleeping," came a voice from behind the curtain.
Oh, my God. It was Snape, the professor. He was . . . a portrait! He was a portrait!
"You're a portrait!" I exclaimed, gesturing for his curtain to open.
"And you're the brightest witch of her age," said the portrait of Severus Snape, his voice like heavy chocolate over a ball of dismissive boredom.
"Where is your body?" I demanded.
We'd looked everywhere, and for such a long time.
"By now, what was once food for forest creatures should be used up fertilizer, I would imagine. I had no burial, or so I was told."
"'Told'? By whom?"
"By the house-elf who woke me."
"In the Shack?"
"In my frame, Miss Granger," said the portrait.
"Oh!" I exclaimed, at the intrusion.
"Oh," Portrait Snape said, sounding completely unimpressed, "it's you, Bitsy."
"You is talking."
"Yes, I am," he told the elf.
"But not to your mum, not to your mum's—who is this?"
"That is the illustrious Miss Hermione Gra—or is it Weasley, now? Mrs Weasley?"
I flushed. It had been a strange period of weeks, weeks in which not once had I found myself missing Ron.
"Ah, I see. Krum is it, then? Granger-Krum, perhaps?"
I blushed to think of how much the professor had noticed. "No. It's Granger, Hermione Gra—"
"Oh! Oh! Oh! The Hermione! The Hermione Granger! Bitsy is sorry, Hermione Granger. Please don't give Bitsy a sock!"
Portrait Snape uttered a vicious snort at Bitsy's cringing posture and exclamations.
"That was a long time ago!" I protested. "I don't give out clothing to unwilling elves anymore, and you," I insisted, to Snape's portrait, "stop that this instant!"
"A terror to house-elves everywhere," he replied. "Your fame is more fixed than Potter's."
"You can cut the crap, Professor. I know your story. I know that you—"
"Blah blah, noble, blah blah, heroic, blah blah—"
"Oh, really! What a child you are." I turned from Snape to Bitsy. "Truly, I won't attempt to free you. I couldn't. I'm not on staff, not anymore."
"On staff? You? You're a child!"
"Yes, well, in the immediate aftermath, I was pressed into service."
"Doing what?" demanded Portrait Snape, as Bitsy levitated into a corner, ears quivering.
With an impatient sigh, I replied, "You know, if I'd imagined that you still lived after seeing the cursed wards you cast, I'd have found you and—"
"And done what?"
"—seen you thoroughly bled from the neck." I clenched my fists, shocked by my words and awaiting a reaction to them. When none came, I continued, "It wasn't enough, having to deal with Voldemort and his minions, but having to deal with your vile—"
"Protective enchantments?" interrupted Portrait Snape. "They couldn't have harmed any student!"
"But they did harm the Aurors! And they very nearly took Filius' legs!"
"The wards were there to protect my Slytherins, not all of whom, I assure you, were capable of protecting themselves!"
"Well, I . . . I know that now."
"Good. And Filius' legs? My Slytherins? The school?"
I felt myself soften towards the portrait and wondered how I'd feel towards the man, had he survived. "Filius is an inch taller, and . . . ."
And what of Snape's Slytherins? I didn't know enough about those students, hadn't cared enough about them, I realized, to answer him.
As if Portrait Snape understood that, he quietly asked, "I assume rebuilding is the order of the day?"
"Yes. It's been almost," I said, pausing to remember, "two years since the battle. We held lessons in Hogsmeade's meadows to complete the, the interrupted year."
"Mincing words, Granger?"
"Yes, I am," I snapped. "It was an awful time. I believe you've enough paint to understand that. . . . Remembering is still awful."
"Yes," Snape's portrait agreed, his features smoothing into impassivity, "it is."
He sounded so real as he spoke that I drew in a breath.
"Miss Granger, I would be gratified to know that Ginevra Weasley, Luna Lovegood, and . . . and Neville Longbottom still live."
I felt my eyes burn with remembered relief as I exhaled. "They do. Ginny and Harry are engaged, and Luna and Neville can't seem to get enough of—"
Portrait Snape snorted. "So I recall. Good for them. . . . And Draco Malfoy?"
"He's well. He pushed his father off the Board and took his place. He's given almost every Knut he possesses to the school. He's still a dreadful git, but Astoria makes dealing with him much easier. We all like her very much."
Abruptly, Snape said, "I don't wish to hang in the school."
"But what is this? Headmasters is needing—"
"'Are'!" Snape thundered, his eyes clenched shut as if in pain.
"—are needing to—"
The sharp black eyes of the portrait turned themselves towards Bitsy. "Go. Home. Now."
I started at Bitsy's Disapparation. "It isn't possible for a portrait to command a house-elf!"
"Portrait" Snape rolled his eyes and emerged, in a puff of black, coalescing smoke, from his frame. "Mam's right. You do notice things."
Gobsmacked, all I could do was stare at him and clench my fists.
"'Thoroughly bled from the neck', Miss Granger?" Snape asked, his smirk threatening to become something more. "My, you are a vicious creature."
"You're alive," I breathed more than said.
"And still so sharp."
"That's enough sarcasm for one day, thank you very much. How the hell are you alive?"
"As much as I know it will infuriate you, and perhaps, because of how much, I'm not going to tell you that."
My mouth opened and closed. My fists, as well.
Snape crossed his arms. "Besides, the tale would bore me to tears. Having lived it, I have no desire to relive it. Things were awful, as you rightly pointed out. Perhaps I could instead interest you in dinner and a discussion about why you're afraid of heights and fire?"
Fire, the heat of it, overwhelmed me, and I felt as if I might burn to bits in spite of the cold of the air I was feeling, first rushing upwards, and then, as things began to go black, downwards. I realized that I was breathing quickly without taking in enough air.
Snape crossed the room and took me by the arms. "Close your mouth," he ordered.
"Breath in through your nose."
"And out through your mouth."
"And calm yourself."
"I am calm!"
"Calm down more, breathing as I told you to do."
I huffed and crossed my arms, beginning to tap my foot as I continued to breathe as he'd told me.
And that was the outside of enough: I kicked him in a shin, I didn't know which one, but his yelp was tremendously satisfying. "I'm not your student. You don't tell me what to do!"
"At least you spared my bollocks," Snape replied, rubbing his shin and wincing. "Thanks for that."
"You're—you're welcome," I replied, as the burning sensation subsided. I didn't know what else to say, to do.
The creak of the opening door saved me. "I've stew and fresh bread."
"You buy that from someone, Mam?" asked Severus, with seeming affection.
"Eat it or don't, boy. You're welcome, too," Eileen told me, before pulling the door almost closed.
"I don't know what the hell is going on," I said, boggling when a towel filled with what I assumed was ice pushed the door open wider and floated towards Snape.
Catching it from the air, he pressed it to his shin. "Well, that's a relief."
"What is?" I asked.
"That you're not as much of a know-it-all as I always thought you were."
I stared at Professor Snape, for "professor" it had to be under the circumstances, and wondered again what the hell I was doing. "Wait a minute," I said. "What about Bitsy?"
"Oh, Bitsy. She's a Prince elf, came to us when my sister passed," Eileen told me. "Brought loads of Galleons with her, too."
She and Severus clanked tankards, toasting, "To gold!"
I couldn't help myself. I giggled. "Oh, God. I don't giggle."
"Then stop doing it," Professor Snape and Eileen said, as one.
"All right. Yes, um, thank you for the stew. I think—"
"Oh, no you don't, Granger," Snape said. "I can't have you telling people I'm here."
"But you arranged for me to come here, didn't you?"
"Not entirely," he replied, shooting a look at Eileen.
"The boy gets lonely," she said.
"You mean 'gets in the way'," he snapped.
Eileen flushed, and I noticed that she was wearing a frock rather than her usual balloon operator's uniform.
"Congratulations on your beau," I told her, flushing, myself.
"I want you to take Severus out of here, back to the wizarding world—even if it's only for a little, even if he takes a glamour. He's bored."
I put my hands on my hips. "You mean to tell me that you gave me this sort of a shock just because your son is underfoot?"
"Yes." Eileen beamed at me, and I was struck by how happiness made her pretty.
"That's an awful risk you took!"
"Mam's never been one to restrain herself."
Again, I was struck by the affection in his tone and in his face. He seemed softer, almost at peace. I couldn't think how it was possible given, well, everything.
Eileen eyed me. "You can't quite believe in our little family, I see that. I notice things, too, but you needn't worry. Severus is sound. I'm a brewer, too, and I gave him a sound, Healing sleep. He slept so long that I feared he'd never wake."
"But wake I did."
"This is very odd. Oh, I'm sorry!"
"You've no need to apologize, Granger," said Snape. "But I cannot have you discussing my existence, you understand that, I trust?"
"You have my word."
"That ought to be good enough for you, boy," said Eileen.
Snape stared at me, through me, and knowing that his gaze was Legilimentical, I shivered—but I didn't close my eyes.
After a moment, he said, "Yes, your word is good enough for me."
"Do you think this is what your mum had in mind?" I asked him, afterwards.
"Are you seriously bringing my mother to bed with us?" he demanded.
I snorted, a habit I'd developed since becoming friendly with the Snapes. "Forgive me."
"Mmm," replied Severus, drawing his nose up my neck before nibbling lightly upon my jaw. "I do."
"Then come meet my parents?" Oh, God. I'd just said that, said it aloud. "What I mean is—"
"Are they good with secrets? Because the last thing I need is the Ministry at my door. Mam loves heights and fire. It would kill her to lose her business."
"I would never—"
Severus stopped me speaking by turning my face up to his. "Yes, but would your parents? I believe you know how . . . difficult it was for me to find my way back to my mother."
Blood. So much blood, I thought, remembering his neck in shreds from Nagini's bites.
I pushed down the memory because it didn't fit the moment, ignoring his question. "I do, and I know how worried you are about discovery. After all, you did pull that portrait trick."
Severus smirked. "That was more to do with curiosity. I'm nosy, too."
"Did you know how to hide in a frame when I was camping with Harry and Ron?"
"Do you mean, did I spy on you in that way? No. Mam's new library is extensive."
"What library?" I demanded.
"She keeps it in the bottom of her bureau in the front room of the hut."
Severus leant against me and purred into my neck, "Is it books on your mind just now, Hermione?"
He drew out the syllables of my name, long and slow, and I melted into him.
"You should go. I know you want to."
"And what of you? The Ministry is not good enough for you," Severus said, stroking my hair.
"Are you inviting me to travel with you?"
"I am, Hermione."
"You don't think I'd make a good dental hygienist?"
Severus smirked. "Your father wasn't serious. Your father thinks I'm good for you."
"Yes, but Mother despises you, our age difference, anyway."
From the kitchen, Eileen called, "No disrespect to your mother, but—"
Ignoring his mother, Severus told me, "We don't have to travel by balloon."
I laughed. "No, we don't."
In professorial tones, he began to speak. "Magical trains. Magical ships. Magical—"
Perhaps he fell silent because he'd noticed, as I had, that the room suddenly had no doors. Eileen had, apparently, given us our privacy.
And that's not like her at all, I thought, and then I thought something entirely different. "When are you going to properly explain things to me, Headmaster? I think I'm ready."
"To be told?"
"You do notice things, but damn if I don't know what you noticed that makes you need the truth. You are happy, aren't you?"
"Things just dropped into place, just happened. It was all too easy. I worry, I worry about everything and everyone all the time. I used to worry about my parents."
"Undoing the charm?"
"Yes. When I applied the memory charm, I had no idea how to remove it—but there we were, or so I half remember, in their kitchen, one I don't, didn't, recognize, with you."
"And why is that bad? People redecorate, you know."
"Severus." I pushed myself up and hugged my knees. "Severus, Dad would never have accepted you. You're too old for me, he'd think if he could about a daughter he no longer has. And . . . and as much as I've enjoyed you, in reality? I'd've been too terrified of my fancying you to have ever acted upon it—and people don't melt doors! This isn't real," I told him, directly gazing into his eyes. "I know that this isn't real."
"I see," he said, and then he disappeared.
I felt cold, clammy, and oddly free. "Where am I?"
"A convalescent home, Miss Granger, one for witches."
"Is Severus . . . ?"
"He's our brewer, and he's . . . he'd be interested to see you awake."
"I had a dream."
"I know. I'm the one who gave it to you . . . not long after your useless fiancé brought his new girl around. I took the liberty of relieving him of his guilt."
I blinked, not really wanting to know what she'd meant by that. "My parents?"
"According to Ronald Weasley, they're safe as houses where you left them," said Eileen, bending down to fluff my pillows. "It's my understanding from your friend, Harry, that nothing can be done to set their memories to rights. You knew that before the attack."
My mouth went dry. "On me. After the remembrance ceremony?"
"Yes," Eileen said, nodding. "You're beginning to remember. You were hit with some sort of a fire spell and thrown several storeys into the air."
My eyes itched at the corners with unshed tears. "And I fell."
"And Severus caught you."
"But he's dead."
"No, he didn't die. He's not stupid, my son. He found you, brought you here where he brought me so many years ago, and I put you in a Healing Sleep."
My heart, I could suddenly hear it beating, so hard that it hurt. "How long?"
"I expect it must feel like a year, but—"
A year. Over a year, I thought, ignoring Mrs Snape. I'd been dreaming. And I knew now, as I curled up into a ball, why I'd been dreaming rather than remembering. The pain. The shock and pain and fear and falling. Fire!
"Calming draught," Eileen barked, pressing a phial between my lips.
I let her force its contents into my mouth and swallowed. I couldn't remember how to do anything else.
"There, that's better. Good girl."
"And, and my . . . skin?" I asked, much calmer but suddenly, ridiculously fearful. "My looks have never been my strong suit, but—"
I knew that voice. My heart leapt at it. But I told myself that what I was feeling was based on a dream and demanded, "Give me a mirror. I don't wish to be lied to!"
"No one is lying to you, Granger. The Snatcher who cast the fire spell is dead. I killed him."
I closed my eyes in, yes, gratitude, and then started as I felt a handle being pushed inside my fist.
"I killed him," repeated Snape, "and I promise you that you are beautiful."
I opened my eyes and saw that it was true. "Thank you. Thank you both."
"I don't know," I told Severus, for after my dream, I couldn't really think about him as anything else. "It was all just too easy. Things—"
"—are never easy," we said, as one.
I smiled at him. "Thank goodness that sometimes some things are. You seem to be doing well."
His expression guarded, Severus replied, "Miss Granger . . . you seem . . . that is to say, Healing Sleeps, they can—"
"Out, boy. Miss Granger and I need a word."
"Yes, Mam," Severus told Eileen, leaving at once.
"He seems relieved."
"He is. The boy's been worried about you, about how his potions were working upon you. He stayed by your side often. He talked to you."
"I dreamt of him."
Eileen shook her head. "I'm not surprised, but I do think you should know that Severus can become . . . attached."
Well, that was one way to put it, I thought, saying, "And he's been attempting to heal himself, to forget about Harry's mum?"
"You do notice things, don't you? Good girl. I'm not saying that he's obsessed with you, just that you should take it slow, this 'friendship' of yours. For so many reasons, you should take things slowly."
I nodded, but I wasn't sure. "I've been asleep for over a year. Everything I know is different now. I have no idea what to do with myself."
"There are worse things not to know. At least now, you can have an adventure."
"What's the fun in doing what's expected?" asked Luna. "Besides, Ginny fell in love with Neville during the war. Harry 'protected' her out of his heart. Ginny didn't need that."
I smiled. "And you needed Harry?"
Luna cocked her head. "Well, no. I don't need him. I want him. I love him. And he needs me." She smiled. "I like being needed." She leant down to whisper, "I think Severus does, too. Be kind to him."
With that, she kissed my forehead and rose. "Remember, doing what's expected?"
"Is highly overrated?"
Luna nodded. "And Severus seems quite sane to me."
Eileen waited until Luna had gone before saying, "Odd girl. I like her, but she's odd."
"I think Luna would take that as a compliment," I said.
Eileen snorted. "Rest now."
"No," I answered. "I've rested long enough."
"I'm not getting in there."
"Then why did you drag us out here?" asked Severus, who stood next to his mother.
Harry and Luna had gone off to secure tickets.
"Always thought these looked like fun," Eileen volunteered. "Are you sure you don't want to try it, girl?"
An idea occurred to me. "You're not here because you think he's attached. You're here because you think I'll hurt him."
Severus coughed and walked a little away. Eileen flushed.
"A mam looks out for her boy as best she can, Miss Granger."
"Knock it off, Miss Prince. I know you want to call me 'girl'."
She sniffed. "Go be one. Take a ride with Severus. You've your wand back. You can protect yourself."
"Perhaps. But I'm not getting in there. I'm afraid of, I don't like heights and fire."
"Well, I suppose you can always learn to fly another way."
"Luna!" exclaimed Harry.
Severus raised his eyebrows . . . and his arms.
I stepped into them.
It had been weeks since I'd left the convalescent home for a tidy little flat near Grimmauld Place, and Severus had been a frequent, platonic visitor—all the better to ensure that my recovery was truly complete, he'd assured me.
"Now then," he said, "we're going to dance, and after a while, I'll see if I can't alleviate your concern about heights."
I blinked at him owlishly, wishing I had actual wings. I didn't really want to fly. So why had I asked for this?
"My mother is wrong. I'm not obsessed with you, Granger."
"I told you. Call me Hermione. You Healed me."
He frowned. "And I've no wish for you to become obsessed with me."
"I'm not, you idiot. I'm really not. I'm grateful, yes, but I enjoy your company. Truly, this isn't weird, I—"
Severus smirked at me, and we swayed a good bit more than I thought was reasonable for dancing.
"No," corrected Severus, "I'm flying. You're along for the ride, and all without fire."
"Forgive me. I'll take us down."
"You didn't scare me, truly," I told him, deliberately not looking down. "You didn't. It's just that you're a tad wrong in your estimation of the heat."
I could see his throat spasm. I smiled into it.
"I am, I find, in spite of our great height, a little warm."
Severus' voice was tellingly hoarse, and that made me feel more adventurous than not.
"A little," I assured him, "but that's only reasonable, isn't it?"
I placed my feet on his to stop swaying quite so much and looked up. "I won't lie. I still feel as though I'm in a dream. I don't really like it, being off balance in this way, but I suppose it will take time, won't it? Finding balance, finding a reason, finding my way."
"And Luna's right. There's no reason why we can't have a little fun while we're figuring out what this is, is there?"
Eileen rose from his bedside and checked his pulse, felt his forehead, ran her wand over him. Her boy was stable, again, and getting stronger all the time.
"Dunderhead," she murmured. "You'd be well and truly recovered if you'd not attended that blasted remembrance ceremony. You know that, don't you?"
Eileen shook her head. She'd had her son nearly Healed from that snake bite before he'd taken off under glamour to satisfy his maudlin curiosity.
"Do you know that it's been six weeks since you came back? Grasping to life and the Granger girl?"
Her fire-abused body haunted Eileen still. Severus, it seemed, had managed to stay mostly out of the way, but that hadn't been out of the way enough.
"You just had to play the hero, didn't you? You had to make more work for me," she grumbled, fluffing Severus' pillows none too gently.
That didn't matter, of course. Eileen didn't mind the work, and she hadn't become a Healer in a private magical hospital to hide, whatever her boy's intentions had been those long years ago.
"You know why I became a Healer?" she asked Severus, watching his lips move as she freshened him and then his sheets with a charm. "I became a Healer because, when all was said and done, I found that I gave a damn. Isn't that something? I know you'll never believe—"
"Hermione Granger is talking, too, Mistress," Bitsy reported, pulling back the curtains around Severus' bed to point to Granger's. "Balloons. Dancing. Flying. She is seeming very happy to Bitsy."
"Excellent," Eileen replied, "now off you go back to your rounds."
"Did you hear that, boy? The Granger girl's coming along nicely in her treatment, but then, you already know that, don't you?"
Strong in their magic, her son and the Granger girl were, and it made sense to Eileen that they would try to communicate. Healing Sleeps were strange beasts, indeed, and both children had been recovering in their depths for some time.
Stepping outside the charmed curtains around Severus' bed, Eileen made her way over to Granger's. "Flying, is it? Your messy-haired friend told me that you hate flying. He's a talker, that one."
Granger furrowed her brow. "Not getting in that."
"That's right, you're not. You're not doing anything you don't want to do. Not anymore," Eileen assured her, running her wand over the girl.
No matter Bitsy's assurances and assistance—and Merlin knew there wasn't nearly enough for an elf to do to keep her from getting underfoot—Eileen always did her own rounds.
"I won't admit this when you wake up, ducky, but I'm glad he's found you, truly I am."