The lady appeared pale and pretty behind her smoked glasses, and she wore, among her other jewellery, a small phial on a leather cord around her neck.
"Oh, not again," complained the smooth-faced youth with her. "Why does it always have to be about the water with you, even here?"
"Because it does," she told him, pouring the phial's contents out around herself.
A small circle of water spread out and deepened around the lady, who laughed and waved her hands over it. Tiny, multi-coloured particles fell, as if from her fingertips, to the surface, and rising to meet them came the silvery flash of piscine mouths.
"Look at them shimmer!" exclaimed the man, rubbing his expanding stomach.
"I do," she replied. "All the time."
Stroking his beard, the old man retorted, "Don't talk to me about Time."
Hermione stood under the spotlight in the centre of the rippling stage and swallowed, hard. Cool water lapped against her ankles, and somehow, it didn't bother her to find herself nude.
She knew that the ringmistress was with her, wading around somewhere on the stage.
It's not she, Hermione thought, closing her eyes against the impenetrable glare. It's not she, or anyone in the audience, who's watching me so intently.
A soft, nearby splash caused Hermione to shiver.
There's only one pair of eyes—"Oh!"—on me.
Oh, yes, there was only one pair of eyes fixed upon her, caressing her, tracing the contours of her body as softly as the fingertips that followed the gaze.
The sensation of a masculine presence all but embraced Hermione. "Who . . . who are you?"
"Don't you know?"
Hermione's eyes snapped open only to close against the light. I do! she thought. I do know your voice!
Low, heated words followed a teasing fingertip to the shell of her ear. "You should know. You should know me very well."
"Oh, God. I don't, but I want to."
In jarring interruption, the house lights rose with the ringmistress' unwelcome voice.
"Yes, that's always the way, dearie. Tell us about your beau!"
The light winking off the uncountable number of sequins adorning the ringmistress' costume was mesmerising.
Leering awfully, she splish-splashed her way towards Hermione, announcing, "There are no secrets here at the Cirque du Magique!"
Splash! Splash! Splash! Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Creeeak! Bang!
"Miss Lake's a bit much, but she ain't never wrong," a young man remarked, sweeping by.
"I beg your pardon?"
"The ringmistress." The young man stopped and cocked his head. "You did just come from the circus?"
"Well, she always knows, and she always shows. Whoever you heard, that'll be your hubby."
"What if I don't want—"
"A husband?" The young man grinned, beginning to sweep again. "Then don't marry him—but do take the opportunity to, uh, get to know him well!"
"This is the absolute worst conference I've ever attended!"
Mortified, Hermione tried to cover her blushes—not to mention the rest of her—with a shake of her unaccountably long, unconquerably frizzy hair. "Why . . . why isn't your voice echoing?"
Severus Snape smirked down at her. "I know a trick."
"What's happened to irritate you?" Snape interrupted. "I thought you wanted to 'see the sights'."
"I'd much rather be working on my speech, to be honest."
"I don't think you are being honest," Snape replied, leaning down to smell her hair.
Hermione's eyes widened. "This is still the performance!"
The sound of rushing water merged with that of humorous applause.
"Oh, brava!" cried the ringmistress, clad all in red and silver and blue sequins, sequins which were literally tiny eyes, somehow winking at Hermione without any eyelids. "You're a sharp piece, aren't you, sweetheart? I'll bet you know his name now!"
"I knew his name before!" Hermione shouted, drawing her wand.
Darkness fell, the laughter and applause faded away, and the headlining speaker of that year's International Conference on Advances in Potioneer Research fled to her hotel. Rather, she fled to her hotel's 'bar'.
"Mmrmph," mumbled Hermione.
TAP! TAP! TAP!
"I said, go away!"
"In fact, you did not. You mumbled something unintelligible, I'm certain, and now you are shouting at me," a door-muffled reply filtered into the room.
"Oh, no. It's him!"
Hermione was up and spelled clean, dressed, and sober in no time, and all too soon, she found herself opening her door. "Sna—Pro—Se—er, why are you here so early?"
"It's three in the afternoon."
"I . . . I was supposed to give a speech!"
Snape furrowed his brow and stepped away from Hermione. "Your speech was yesterday. That circus must have been . . . entertaining." Waving a hand at her mouth, he asked, "What didn't you drink, Professor Granger?"
Hermione would have answered Snape if she could have, but her embarrassment was extreme. I am the performance, aren't I? she asked herself, as the corridor in which Snape was standing resolved itself into the theatre again.
Hermione looked down and back up in consternation. "My shoes!"
The ringmistress grinned in a fairly terrifying manner as she stage-whispered out of the side of her mouth, "You did sign a waiver, darling. Now stop this silliness and say his name!"
"I don't like this," Hermione said. "I don't like this at all!"
"Neither do I."
Snape's words were so quiet that everyone went quieter to hear them, and once heard, he thundered something too loud for Hermione to make out.
The hands that touched her then weren't at all soft as she found herself being swept up into Snape's arms and Apparated away.
His kiss stopped her mouth.
It was wet.
Hermione closed her eyes in exasperation. Fucking circus! "Stop it! Stop this at once!"
A titter or two and the odd splash reached her ears, but mostly, the theatre was silent.
"You really are a hard case, aren't you, peaches?" the ringmistress asked. "All you have to do is say his name." She circled Hermione. "Say his name, sweetie, and the show's over."
Hermione crossed her arms and tapped one soggy shoe.
The ringmistress' suit twinkled hypnotically as she swayed back and forth before Hermione, keeping herself always half-turned towards the light-obscured crowd.
Hermione closed her eyes. This is a dream. It has to be a dream. I don't need rescuing, she told herself, before shouting, "I do the rescuing!"
"Is that right, sweetheart?" purred the ringmistress. "You do the rescuing?"
Hermione's patience, like a taut string strummed once too often, snapped. "Among other things, yes."
Several gleaming teeth burst out of the ringmistress' garishly painted mouth and landed in the water, Plip! Plip! Plip!
For the first time that evening, Hermione smiled.
"I really did think I was dreaming," she explained to him.
"Yes, well, no matter, no matter! I've called you a limo. You go back to your hotel and enjoy your stay, as I said, completely on us!"
"That's really not necessary."
"No, no, it is! Oh, I think it is. What happens at the Cirque du Magique stays at the Cirque du Magique, War Hero Granger. Do you understand? I have a reputation for pleasing people, you know."
"Ah. Yes, of course. In that case, perhaps you should—"
"Now then, you'll be wanting your coat." The short, fussy man struggled to get Hermione into it. "Good, good—goodbye!"
Glass doors sweeping closed behind her, Hermione shrugged and climbed into the waiting car, only to find Severus Snape, clad as a chauffer, in the driver's seat.
"Oh, for Merlin's bloody sake! I will kill him!"
"Kill whom? And why? I'm the one who lost the sodding bet!" snapped Snape.
Hermione cocked her head. "This is the outside of enough! If I'd known that the 'circus' was going to be more surreality telly than—"
"Miss Granger," Snape interrupted, "I don't know what you're going on about, but this. Is. Happening. To me. Not to you."
Hermione's nose twitched. "Reach back here and pinch me."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Pinch me. Please."
Snape stepped out of the car and immediately back inside of it, bringing with him the scents of strong coffee, astringent citrus, and salt-rich tears.
I can taste them.
Startled, Hermione snapped, "What?"
"Where do you wish to be pinched?" Snape clarified. "Given the hell of my evening, I suppose it's all part of the service."
Hermione held out her arm. Snape pinched it.
"You did ask."
Oh, God! thought Hermione, as Snape began rubbing two fingers over the pinch mark on her inner forearm that was disappearing just as quickly as it had bloomed. "I . . . I know, but my evening's not gone to plan, either."
"Your colleagues elected to humiliate you over drinks?" Snape asked.
"Something like that. Wait, what are you doing in Las Vegas?"
"Driving you to your hotel, it seems."
Scowling, Hermione reached out and pinched Snape on the cheek. It hurt.
"What the hell did you do that for?" Snape demanded, anger rippling across his features.
Hermione rubbed her face and tried to fight the sensation of being dragged underwater. "Just wanted to see . . . if you . . . were rea—"
"Granger. Miss Granger! Hermione?"
"Since when does she call you Se—"
"Shut up, Potter. Hermione, can you open your eyes?"
Hermione half-opened her eyes, somewhat concerned about what she'd see. "What happened to your uniform?"
"Right. She's had ten too many," Ron muttered.
"Ron didn't come with us to the conference."
"What conference?" Snape asked Hermione.
"I'm never going to wake up from this dream, am I?"
"Hermione, you're not dreaming." Snape applied a cold compress to her forehead.
Hermione shivered as fat droplets of water trickled down the sides of her face.
"You've suffered a form of intoxication," Snape continued. "You were found unconscious at the return Portkey site near the train station. Do you remember what you did after you gave your speech?"
"You just asked me about a conference, but you also know about the conference. I'm still dreaming." Hermione sat up. "All right, you glimmering bitch! I know you're here."
Someone licked Hermione's ear. "Say. His. Name."
Hermione screamed. It wasn't in fear.
Shaking her head, she replied, "Nope. That's not how it would be, not in an Auror station. Metal cuffs are for Muggles. This is still the dream."
Harry's frown deepened, he reached up to wipe his brow, and suddenly, it seemed to Hermione as if she were watching his reflection in a puddle of water.
"What?" demanded Harry.
"Where's your scar, you git?"
"Not as frigid as you," said the ringmistress. "If you'd just say his name, you could be safe and warm in his arms."
"Clothing." At her word, a shiver of warmth fell about Hermione's body, and she looked down at the soft, dark—intentionally short—green dress she was wearing. "That's better."
"Oh, so now we're lucid dreaming."
"'Lucidly'," Hermione retorted, sighing at the ringmistress. "It's 'lucidly dreaming'."
"Really. Why do you want me to say 'his' name, anyway?"
The ringmistress shrugged. "That's the show. You buy a ticket, I tell you your future."
"And ruin my shoes," Hermione replied, lifting one off the watery stage.
The ringmistress snickered.
"How are you actually telling me anything," Hermione continued, staring into the off-stage darkness, "if I have to tell you his name?"
The ringmistress grinned a near-toothless grin. "That's the trick."
"Are you even human?"
"Human? What's that?" asked the ringmistress.
"I'm really bored now. I didn't pay you to bore me."
The ringmistress shrugged. "Strictly speaking, dearie, you didn't pay me."
This isn't how it's supposed to go, thought Hermione, wading to the edge of the stage before hopping off of it. I don't know if this is a dream, a performance, or the dream of a performance, but this isn't how it's supposed to go. "All right," she said, turning back to the ringmistress. "I'll tell you his name if you'll tell me yours."
The ringmistress' shiny, winking, watchful costume grew painfully bright and then burst into a shower of iridescence to loud applause, and as the sound of it faded, a familiar voice whispered, "Hermione Jean Granger."
"Well?" Hermione's own, disembodied voice asked her.
Hermione took a breath, relaxed, and allowed the name in question to flow from her lips with the air.
"Long. . . . Thank you."
"Want something to steady your nerves?"
Hermione looked at the manager of the Cirque du Magique and shook her head, blinking rapidly in an attempt to bring him into focus. He didn't appear as she expected him to, but he seemed familiar.
"No, you're not dreaming," the manager, a middle-aged man with a salt and pepper goatee, reassured her, patting her hand. "Glass of water?"
"No," replied Hermione quickly, glancing about.
"This is one of the dressing rooms. You were the entertainment, you know, and we always like our 'performers' to dry off before they leave." He knelt down and reached for something. "Your shoes," he said, presenting them to her. "All dry now."
Hermione took them and slipped them onto her feet. "Thank you."
"You're most welcome. Now then, when you're ready, Lake'll show you where our driver's waiting."
In the manager's wake, Hermione murmured, "That . . . wasn't what I expected at all."
"Of course it wasn't," said someone behind her, "but the 'show' isn't really where the magic part comes into it."
Magical part, Hermione inwardly corrected, turning around.
The ringmistress, a youngish woman with a fine network of lines about her eyes, leaned against the wall. She was wearing a much less-distracting ensemble of a white tee shirt, black jeans, and a pair of heavy boots. She smiled a complete, rather sheepish smile, and pushed her hair behind her ears. Hermione's eyes were drawn to her earrings; one was a shiny sword, and the other, an intricately wrought, gleaming scabbard.
"Where did you get those?"
The ringmistress shrugged. "Had 'em forever."
"Ah," said Hermione, shaking her head.
"People sometimes put us in their shows, you know," said the ringmistress. "Drugs, er, potions are funny that way."
"You're a Squib?"
"Oh, peachy. That obvious, is it?"
"Well, you did mention drugs, which is very Muggle, but you work here, so—"
"I must be a Squib." The ringmistress nodded. "Yeah, good for you. So, feeling all right? Get what you wanted?"
Hermione felt her eyes burn as she gathered up her things. "Not exactly, no, but . . . at least I know now."
The ringmistress sighed. "The way out's just down the corridor to your left, and then it's a right at the end."
"Thanks," said Hermione, walking quickly away before her tears could fall.
Hot, oppressive air enveloped her as she opened the door, but in spite of it, it felt good to truly leave the circus.
"I'm mostly Squib. I mean, I don't tend to do magic . . . often."
"But for a war hero?"
The ringmistress smiled and held out her hand to collect the tear that came floating towards it. "I hate it when they cry."
"They always do, my love."
"Yes, love. That's what this," the ringmistress, pulling the tear into a big, shining ball, replied, "is all about."
The two then clasped hands and cried, "Show time!"
"The hell!" Severus yelled, dropping his razor.
There was an eye in his mirror. It was eying him. It seemed to have some connection to the disembodied mouth full of large, obnoxiously white teeth.
"Greetings from Beyond," a feminine voice intoned, with mock solemnity. "So, here's the deal, Severus Tobias Snape. You're not really dead. You still have a working cock. And there's a beautiful, lonely woman who'd like to be riding it. Sound good?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Aren't you tired of hiding, you idiot? You did do some good. Your aura looks good, or, uh, 'goodish', I guess."
"American. Of course."
"Sure, if you say so. That explains me, but what explains you? You left her. You left that sweet piece of ass. I mean, sure, she was too young for you at the time and there was a war and you were, uh, well, much more of an asshole than now, but now now, you know, right now, you're almost decent. You're alive, whole, not totally boring, and you do have something to offer a lady."
The eye moved downward. The edges of the disembodied mouth moved upward.
"Don't you want to shag the brightest witch of her age?"
Severus' eyes widened. "Did Granger put you up to this?"
"No," said the eye, or rather, the disembodied mouth belonging to the eye. "Enough talking! Take the Portkey. Accept the position. Invent some new ones."
A snicker and an odd pop! later, Severus found himself alone again.
"What Portkey?" he asked, kneeling to retrieve his razor.
"We weren't supposed to mention that, Ron!" Harry admonished, reaching for his butterbeer.
"Do you mean to tell me that he's alive? That it's . . . not a . . . a prank?"
"I don't care for pranks."
Hermione drew herself up straight. Severus Snape, about whom she'd become increasingly obsessed after being given the task of cataloguing his potions journals, was actually standing behind her.
"You're here," she said, half to herself. "In the flesh."
"You have my journals," Snape told her, sliding into the booth that Harry and Ron were in the process of hastily vacating. "I want them back."
"Dead men have no possessions."
Snape raised an eyebrow at her and spread out his arms. "Obviously, I'm not dead."
The sensation of water lapping against her ankles made Hermione want to check her shoes, but all she could do was stare, stare and smile.
"If the work of a brooding, self-involved wizard truly interests you, then keep my journals," Snape said, flicking his eyes down to Hermione's décolletage via her mouth before again raising them to capture her gaze, "but it's recently been intimated to me that I've much more to offer a witch in the flesh."
With those words, he placed a ticket on the table between them.
Hermione knew it at once. The Cirque du Magique, she thought, swallowing in the reassuring dryness of the pub's air.
"Well?" demanded Snape.
Hermione didn't think about what she said next; she just knew that it was right.
"Would you like to go somewhere and fuck?"
"Must you be so crude?" he asked, pulling the hem of his long robes and hoary beard back from the water's edge.
"Don't make me regret freeing you from that cave."
The odd pair eyed one another. She dimpled dangerously up at him, and he grunted down at her with apprehensive good humour.
"Arthur'll be returning soon," he told her. "It's time, you know."
"Past time for his return, you mean," she replied, looking up at what were, for both of them, the wrong stars. "You've needed sorting out for a while."
"Past time," he agreed, running a hand over his dark goatee. "I have, however, very much enjoyed our circus of a holiday in this not-at-all damp clime."
She sank into the water and spoke, her words escaping from out of rising bubbles.
"Oh, but Nimue," he said, his voice cracking, "surely it hasn't been all bad since Time began having her wicked way with me?"
She surfaced, captured his smooth face between her hands, and murmured soft words to him in between hungry kisses.
"My darling . . . Myrddin . . . it's been . . . surreal."
The innocent in her arms giggled. She leaned back, laughing ruefully.
"Oh, y—es! Yes, it has b—been!" she told him, before drawing the babe down with her, yet again, into the safety of the lake.