The woman looked at her map and then back to her compass, which was unhelpfully spinning around and around. She let out a frustrated snort as she blew a stray hair out of her face.
The compass is going mad! It must be around here somewhere!
Her eyes spotted a large formation of rocks and she began to creep towards it. She was deeper than she had ever been into the forest and she had only an idea of what she might find.
There were sounds from the other side and the sound of hooves.
She took a deep breath and continued forward. She didn’t want to disturb the centaurs at all, but if she came upon them she had items to trade in exchange for safe passage. She frowned as she realized the hooves had a metallic ring to them. The centaurs didn’t use horseshoes. They considered them primitive and offensive.
She pulled her wand out and began to slowly inch up the crop of rocks, realizing the intruders would probably be in the dry riverbed she kept running into during her search.
She urged herself forward and gasped as what she saw.
Several centaurs had been bound and muzzled, a bit and bridle mangling the curses they were flinging at their attackers. Several robed figures were marching an unhappy unicorn up a plank and into the back of a horse-drawn cart. A hooded figure lay motionless on the ground nearby.
Something hit her and everything went dark.
She groaned as she regained consciousness, whishing her head was anywhere besides bumping along rhythmically against the floor of the cart as the horses picked their way out of the forest.
“What in the name of all that’s magic in the world are you doing here, Miss Granger?” A familiar voice slid through the dark towards her.
“I could ask you the same thing!” Hermione snapped. “Unless you’re just some side effect from that conk on the head. Please God, let it be that.”
The voice was silent for a moment. “I’m afraid not.”
She sighed. “Just my luck.”
He snorted at her.
“What are you doing here, Severus?” Hermione asked, putting a hand behind her head to cushion the bouncing.
“I don’t remember giving you liberty to use my given name,” he said stiffly.
“I’ve held the position of Potions Master of Hogwarts for sixteen years. I officially outrank you. I’ll call you anything I bloody well like.” Hermione said snippily.
“Touché, Hermione,” he said after a moment.
She let out a small satisfied grunt.
“What happened to us?” she finally asked him. “What hit me?”
“The same thing that hit me, I would reason” Severus said stiffly. “Forgive me if I don’t remember.”
Hermione groaned. “They were taking a unicorn. Possibly centaurs, as well.”
Severus snorted. “An unwise idea. Attempts in the past have ended badly for the poachers.”
“They’re going to end badly if I get my hands on them,” Hermione said crankily.
Severus snorted again as he adjusted his sitting position. “What were you doing in the unicorn breeding grounds? I’m sure the reason will be as ill-conceived as your antics at school.”
“If my head stops hurting you’ll end up badly as well,” Hermione snapped. She groaned and closed her eyes for a moment.
“I have a feeling I’ll regret this,” Severus said grimly as he pulled a small bottle out of his cloak and tipped it into Hermione’s mouth.
She swallowed, unquestioningly and after a moment she started moving her head from side to side. She sat up slowly and sat against the wall opposite Severus. “What was that?”
“Stage Four Healing Potion.”
“What?” Hermione spluttered. “You can’t possibly! Half of the ingredients are extinct!”
“But there is a small spring in a small grove in the center of the forest,” he said patronizingly, as if reciting a fairy tale.
“And it spurts out potion?” Hermione raised an eyebrow at him.
“It’s one of the last magical springs in the world. Dumbledore doesn’t want the whole world to know.”
Hermione made a frustrated noise. “I bet that’s what I was looking for!”
She swore and he looked mildly surprised at her. “Does Professor McGonagall know what a filthy mouth her former prize pupil has?”
“She should know. She hears it enough,” Hermione snorted. “Staff meetings have been a little out of control lately.”
“May I ask why?” Severus asked, his face becoming serious.
“Nosy thing, aren’t you?” Hermione asked. “We’re deciding whether house-elves will be joining us as students next year.”
“What?” Severus blustered. “That’s just ridiculous!”
“No it’s not!” Hermione argued, as if she had been doing so often. “They have higher magical powers but they don’t know how to use them! How to control them!”
“Their minds are primitive!” Severus snorted.
“Not after they’ve been freed!” Hermione shook her head. “When the curse binding them to a family is broken their brains become less muddled. The younger the better, we’ve found. Older ones have permanent brain damage.”
“Are you telling me you’ve been freeing Hogwarts elves?” Severus asked stiffly.
“No.” Hermione grinned. “The Longbottoms finally caved and freed all their house elves. One of the females had a young brood and their brains regained their acuity quickly. I’m not sure anyone has ever freed a kit before.”
Severus seemed to mull this over. “So finding a magical spring will help you get the elves into Hogwarts.”
“No.” Hermione scowled. “I have to prove the elves had an advanced culture before wizards came along. Apparently it’s ‘proof’ that house-elves and Wizards can cohabitate with benefits for both sides.”
Severus made a rude noise. “Free elves need to assimilate into society as early as possible, if you’re going to go through with your inane plan. It will quell any animosity towards Wizardhood before things get out of hand.”
“We don’t need another war.” Hermione said wearily. “The sooner the pupils start seeing house-elves as equals the sooner we’ll have a generation that thinks slavery of anyone, even other species, is wrong.”
Severus looked at her appraisingly.
The cart came to a halt and there were muffled noises from outside.
“We must be charmed against sound,” Hermione said as she ran her hand over one of their prison walls.
They were shifted like cargo and they ended up grasping each other’s forearms in order to maintain their balance. The cloak Severus was wearing shifted and Hermione gasped at the sight of his neck.
She expected him to have a scar, not a bandage with fresh dressings on it.
They went level as they were loaded onto some sort of platform that seemed to bob slightly under their weight and they let go of each other.
“Is that just to cover your scar?” Hermione asked hesitantly.
Severus snorted. “Unfortunately things are not that simple when you’re bitten by a living Horcrux.” He peeled back the bandage to see a delicate web of scars leading to two large puncture marks that looked as if they were just starting to heal. “I have to continue drinking water from that spring or I die.”
Hermione looked at him in silence.
“You still haven’t told me what you were looking for.”
“The house-elves were said to have created a spot of miracles. I bet that’s your spring.”
“You can’t just go around digging up unicorn breeding grounds like a Muggle excavation site!” Severus blustered.
“I wouldn’t have to,” Hermione said as she threw him an irritated look. “If I come back with a vial of that water it would be enough. I don’t plan on telling them where I found it.”
Severus mulled this over as their prison bobbed and gave them the impression of moving.
“Are we on water?” Hermione asked, her voice betraying her alarm.
“No. It doesn’t smell like water,” Severus said it what might have been a reassuring tone. “I doubt they want to drown us.”
They travelled on, watching the sun dim through the thin walls of their prison. Finally they came to a stop.
Nothing happened. There was some muffled grumbling from outside, then silence.
“Do you think they left us?” Hermione asked, bewildered.
Severus tried opening the trapdoor above them, but it was stuck fast. Although the walls were thin they were surprisingly strong. “I would hope not.”
After some time they started moving again, but there was nothing but silence from outside.
The hair on the back of Hermione’s neck began to prickle as they were led up an incline. Suddenly they were plunged into darkness and Hermione felt Severus’s hand looking for her own.
To her surprise he began squeezing out a message to her in Morse code. Dumbledore had insisted all the Order of the Phoenix learn. Even though he was gone and the war was over, they had all eventually learned out of respect for their fallen Headmaster.
They seemed to be travelling down; down deep into the dark earth without as much as a hint of light.
After quite some time a light began to grow before them. They abruptly stopped when they got to the lighted area when the top of the prison was flung open and they were tipped out onto an earthen floor.
Hermione shook her head and squinted at the sudden brightness.
“Hello, curious wizards.” A booming gravely voice echoed through the cavern. “I hear you’ve come to a forbidden area for ill gain.
“What?” Hermione squeaked. “I was looking for artifacts and he was getting a drink of water. What about the poachers?”
“They have permission to be there. You do not.”
Hermione could finally make out a throne that seemed be growing from the wall of the cave. A heavy, gray figure shifted and examined them suspiciously. “Is this not part of the Forbidden Forest?”
“It is.” It peered at her suspiciously.
“And the Forbidden Forest is under Hogwarts jurisdiction, is it not?” she asked haughtily.
“Only because we allow it.” The creature voice rumbled, causing goose-bumps to rise on Hermione’s arms.
She snorted. “Everything that lives in the forest that is sentient has a magically bound agreement with the school.”
Severus quietly groaned in annoyance.
“You are part of the school then?” The figure asked.
“I’m the Potions Mistress and this is the former Potions Master.”
Was it his imagination or were her eyes flashing with anger? She was insane.
“And who would miss you if you disappeared during your summer?” The creature began chuckling.
“Well, the whole school, my family, the Weasleys, the Ministry—“
“The house-elves,” Severus popped in sarcastically.
“What about the house-elves?” the creature asked sharply.
Hermione and Severus glanced at each other.
“If I can prove they had a civilization before they were bound to wizards, free elves would be allowed to attend Hogwarts. They’re waiting for my return.”
“Go to Hogwarts.” The creature blinked in surprise. “And learn magic.” It seemed amused at this.
“Oh, I doubt it,” Hermione said, to Severus’ surprise. “They’re magical creatures by nature they don’t need to learn anything, they need to learn how to focus and control what they know. It will be more like a honing process.”
The creature shifted in its seat. “With magical tools.”
“Well, that is the point of a school. You learn how to use things to make your life easier,” Hermione said testily.
“Do you think you found what you were looking for?” Its rumble had softened slightly.
“I’m sure some of the magical water will do,” Hermione said, taking a breath. “Unless they come up with some other hoop for me to jump through.”
She could now make out the creature before them. It looked ancient, small bits of dust unsettling as it moved. Gray and craggy, it squinted at her from two dark eyes.
“Why would you do this?” it asked her curiously.
“Because it’s unfair!” She snapped. “They’re perfectly competent creatures, slavery is wrong, and what we found out about the enchantments was appalling!”
Severus said nothing, but quirked an eyebrow at her. It sounded as if she were used to shouting about such things. Perhaps it was time to drop in for a staff meeting. He could use an invisibility cloak and no one would be the wiser. He rather liked seeing her worked up.
“And you are a witch?” The voice was much calmer now and several of what Hermione had thought were rocks unfolded themselves to reveal camouflaged creatures.
“I’m Muggle-born,” Hermione said proudly.
Severus held back a snort. Birthing didn’t mean anything… until it did.
“They are letting Muggle-borns into the school as well,” the creature mused.
“They have for centuries!” Hermione squawked. “As well as others! Veela, werewolves—“
The creature threw its head back and laughed, showing spikes of bone where teeth should be. “What a school this must be!”
Severus shook his head and tried to make the pain between his eyes go away.
“You do not approve of this, former Potions Master?” it asked.
“It’s all very… modern,” Severus said, trying to not sound distasteful.
The creature made a noise like a snort. “You are old-fashioned, like me. We should be among our kind, but if some want to leave and find a new life… what else is there to do?”
The others in the room seemed to quietly chatter about this, some openly shaking their heads.
“We will give you your proof,” the creature said, tilting his head at them. “But you must do it one condition, and it requires an unbreakable vow.”
Hermione shifted warily. “What is this vow?”
“If your school refuses to let them enter, you will send them to us. We will teach them. They will no doubt flourish among their own kind.” It nodded, as if it were approving its own idea.
“Their own kind?” Severus blurted out.
The creature chuckled at him. “Ah, it has been so long even the masters have forgotten where their slaves came from. There was a war for power long ago. It split the island and scattered its people. We went underground. Some chose to stay and fight a losing battle.”
“And they’re house-elves now?” Hermione screwed her face up. “But you don’t look alike!”
“It’s because they have so much wizard blood in them,” the creature snorted. “The world was a cruel place and powerful creatures have to be bred down to make them domesticated. We did the same with our prisoners.”
It reached out a hand and a small figure went to it. The eyes were still the round, brown orbs, but the skin was pebbled rather than craggy and when it smiled at Hermione, human teeth shone back at her.
“After time our prisoners became our kinsmen. It is nice to see the wizards are progressing in a civilized manner, for once.”
Hermione smiled at him. “We don’t need to make an oath. I’d tell them anyway.”
“And anyone else for a hundred kilometers,” Severus snorted under his breath.
The creature roared at this, giving away his keen hearing. “Then you will make the vow in case something happens to your friend.”
“I’m not going back,” Severus said flatly. “I come to the spring for its healing properties. I only take as much as I need.”
“So you are not with the school?” Brown eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“I am… retired,” Severus said with a wrinkle of his nose.
“Why would you need our water? Do you not have any of your own?”
“Most of the magical springs are gone and I have a fatal wound,” Severus said in a clipped tone.
“Let us see your wound,” the smaller figure hissed.
Severus stood rigid for a moment before scowling and undressing his neck. A gasp went up from the crowd.
“Oh, it smells!” One figure whispered to another, although Hermione could smell nothing.
“What did this?” the small figure asked curiously as it approached.
Severus told him and there was excited chattering among the creatures. One fainted dramatically.
“You know, you should be dead.” The figure pointed a finger at the wound and green vapor seemed to emanate from it. “This is more advanced than a wizard should be able to do.”
“I wondered that myself, but we hardly had the chance to chat about it,” Severus said sarcastically.
“Is there anything to be done, Nally?” The creature in the throne asked.
Nally frowned and drew the corners of his mouth in, making his pebbly skin ripple like a snake’s. “I have no idea. It looks like it’s gone a very long time.”
“Over twenty years,” Hermione muttered.
Nally looked at her in horror, then back to the wound. “You should be dead!”
“I’ve managed,” Severus sniffed.
Nally looked at the figure in the throne. “This is truly advanced. We need to study this further.”
Hermione stood near a table beaming as she straightened a blue bow-tie on a small house-elf with a sprig of blond hair on his head. “This is a very important day, Jinx. Sure you’re ready for it?”
The elf groaned at her. “I’ll be fine and if I need to, mum is still down in the kitchens.”
She chuckled at him. “That is an advantage, isn’t it?”
“I’ve already read all of my books. Will there be more for me?” Jinx asked excitedly.
This gave Hermione pause. “I think we might have to make some adjustments, but there will be a whole library for you to read now.”
The elf started dancing in place. “We have to get to the train station! We’ll be late!”
“Are you sure you want to go to London just to take the train back here?” Hermione asked with a wide grin.
“Lucy said I could sit with her, didn’t she?” Jinx looked up at Hermione with giant blue eyes.
“If she didn’t, I’d think Percy would be furious with her.” Hermione chuckled. “You have fun when you’re together don’t you?”
“Yes, but she’s going to be a sixth year!” Jinx cried out. “And we might not even be in the same house.”
“But there will probably be other house-elves with you,” Hermione reassured him. “I was nervous before I left, as well.”
There was a knock at the door and they turned as Nally opened it. “Are you still going to London?”
“You too?” Hermione gave him a grin.
“It is not unusual for instructors to ride the train, I have been told,” Nally said mildly.
“When they’re from anywhere besides the school!” Hermione said in faux exasperation.
“Well, they should get used to me sooner, rather than later,” he said grimly. “If this cultural exchange is going to go well I can’t hide myself away.”
“You’re a wonderful teacher,” Hermione reassured him. “They’ll get used to having a Fir Bolg around.”
“Will we be going back to the mound for classes as well?” Jinx asked excitedly.
“We’ll see,” Nally said as Hermione’s face started to screw up in regret. “You might just have to, you’re so clever. I don’t know about the human students.”
Jinx beamed as she gently lifted him off the table and placed him on the floor. He quickly levitated a few inches and began zooming in the direction of the closest Floo.
“And no more of that!” Hermione called after him. “You’re a student now!”
Nally snorted. “All children get excited at the idea of a new adventure.”
“Even if it’s just upstairs,” Hermione grinned.
“Or in your backyard,” Nally chuckled.
“Hagrid said he’d take us to the train station. It’s been years since he’s ridden, he said.”
A giant, a Fir Bolg, and a house-elf walk into a train station…
“Well, have fun. Don’t terrorize too many people.”
“Us?” Nally asked in mock astonishment.
“Go before I change my mind.” Hermione laughed as the clicking sound of his footfalls hurried down the hall, after the little elf.
She took a deep breath before she closed and bolted her door. She drew the curtains closed before throwing a handful of Floo powder into her small fireplace and murmuring an ancient word. She stuck her head through. “It’s clear.”
She pulled her head back out as Severus Snape crawled into her quarters. He got to his feet and brushed the ash off his long black robes before putting his hands on his hips.
“I hope you’re satisfied. Salazar Slytherin may have just spontaneously resurrected so he could die of a stroke. Again.”
“Serves him right,” Hermione sniffed. “How are things on your end?”
His face broke out into a smile. “They’re all so clever.” He got a dreamy look. “They come up with some of the most interesting theories.”
“Well, it’s nice to know you don’t think all your students are idiots.” Hermione snorted as she pointed her wand at a kettle and it began to heat up.
“You were never an idiot,” he admitted. “Just a pain in the arse.”
Hermione gave him a look. “Well, it’s good to know you’re enjoying yourself.”
“I never thought—I never thought I would say it was good to be teaching again,” he admitted as he sat down at the table Jinx had been standing on.
He polished off a spot with the cuff of his sleeve and Hermione gave him a look.
She set a tray of biscuits in front of him and looked at him apologetically. “Jinx and some of the others may have to go to the mound to take a class or two. He’s already gone through all his materials for the year.”
Severus goggled as he selected a biscuit. He took a deep breath and let it out. “First time for everything, I suppose.”
Hermione reached out to touch his hand and he curled a corner of his mouth, in spite of himself. He choked on his biscuit.
She pounded him on the back and laughed as the kettle started to whistle. “That’s what you get!”
He pulled her onto his lap and wrapped an arm around her waist as she waved her wand and the kettle floated to the table to prepare itself.
“And what is it exactly will I get?” He nibbled at her. “Spare no details.”
She giggled and wrapped her arms around him. “A classroom of brilliant students, each brighter than the next.”
His voice hitched in his throat. “Tell me more.”
“New discoveries that will change the world!” She laughed as he began tickling her. “Majestic perfection in potions, the likes of which have never been seen before!”
“I love it when you talk sexy.” Severus growled at her as she began kissing his face and squirming on his lap.
“But, alas,” she said, putting the back of her hand to her forehead. “I will have to take all the credit, for you are dead.”
He frowned. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Somehow I figured,” Hermione said with a quirked eyebrow.
“If I make a sizable discovery we’ll have to do something about that.” His forehead wrinkled in thought.
Hermione rolled her eyes. “Perhaps you should actually discover something before you plan on becoming a zombie.”
Severus shrugged and responded as she kissed him.
“Eventually it would be nice if the Fir Bolg were assimilated into the school completely,” Hermione said wistfully.
Severus closed his eyes and sighed deeply. “Not going to settle until you’ve harnessed all the magic in the world to Hogwarts, are you? For a Gryffindor you’re quite the little manipulator.”
“I learned from the best,” Hermione said with a grin. “This school will have nothing to fear ever again.”
“Until one of your ‘naturally talented’ students blow it apart on accident.” Severus snorted as she buried her face against his neck.
“That’s next semester’s goal,” Hermione said as she stroked one of his cheeks. “Something special for the fifth years.”
Severus made a ‘tsk’ noise. “Let the Muggle-borns in and there goes the whole neighborhood.”
She gave him a shocked look, but she would have been more offended if he hadn’t instantly flinched.
“I’m sure the Fir Bolg are also thinking something along those lines as well,” she said hotly.
He gave her bottom a squeeze and chuckled as she jumped. “Cheeky.”
She made a huffy noise and crossed her arms.
He gently pulled them apart and put them around himself. “Thank you.”
“A third chance. Most people only get a second.”
She grinned at him slyly. “It’s all a plot. I still haven’t figured out the password to the red cabinet in the ingredient storeroom. I need to keep you about so I can get it out of you.”
Severus began snickering.
“What is so funny?” She sounded as grave as he had while he was teaching at Hogwarts.
“I had just read Ginny Weasley’s mind after her attempt to steal the sword of Gryffindor. Her brother told her it was you that stole my ingredients, not Potter.” It sounded as if he was making an excuse.
“So what’s the password?” Hermione looked at him suspiciously.
“Insufferable know-it-all.” Snape let out an amused chortle.
“Oh, come on now! They’re Hogwarts ingredients!” Hermione pried.
“No,” Severus held his hands up defensively. “That’s your missing password. Insufferable know-it-all.”
A range of emotions crossed Hermione’s voice as she made little outraged sounds. Then she began buffeting him around the head and shoulders as he tried to block her and laugh. She gave him a solid conk on the top of the head before she stopped.
“What was that last one for?”
“The tooth incident,” she said coolly.
“You should thank me for that.” He frowned at her. “Braces, indeed. Are we barbarians?”
“You did it so I’d have to get them fixed?” Hermione asked, her forehead scrunching up as she gave him an exasperated look.
“Did you want to have teeth like mine?” He asked her. “Or walk around with varying degrees of jinxed or cursed headgear courtesy of that dingbat Malfoy?”
“Oh, that’s not fair,” Hermione chided. “He was always right behind me in grades.”
“Getting good marks doesn’t necessarily make one intelligent and he was quite enough trouble already.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “It is how one applies their knowledge to come up with new theories, new discoveries.” He seemed to be studying her cheek and ear in a way that made her blush. “I can’t stay long, you know.”
“I know. Your Earth Chemistry class should be starting soon. I’m just glad you were able to come for a moment before my schedule becomes insane.” Hermione sighed contentedly.
“Should I come back tonight? The faculty after dinner tea should be done by ten. I’ll be out by then.”
She smiled shyly at him. “Goodness gracious, Professor Snape! What reason would you have to enter my chambers so late at night?”
He quirked an eyebrow and smirked as he looked at her bosom. “I have a book you might be interested in.”
Hermione snorted before she kissed him. A long and gentle affair that left them both sighing.
“Now back to your cave.” Hermione got to her feet and smirked at him. “Bloody bat.”
He tried to stare her down as he got to her feet, but it failed to have the effect it once had.
“That look used to get you, you know.”
“You don’t have any power over my grades,” Hermione said simply.
“That’s the only reason it worked?” He gave her an offended look.
“Of course,” she said, her smirk giving her away. “Why else would it?”
He let out an outraged squawk before whipping out his wand and pointed it at her. With a loud ‘floomph’ her hair stood on end.
She gasped in horror as he tore for the fireplace and the safety of the Fir Bolg mound.
She threw a hex at him as he dove through the green flames and had no idea if it had taken effect.
She huffed as she walked to her dresser and looked for her hairbrush.
Bloody nuisance. She chuckled to herself.
She grinned as she began to brush out her bushy hair.
The House Elves were taking classes. More were being freed. The Fir Bolg were testing the waters of cooperation. She finally had someone to share her accomplishments with.
The corners of her mouth twitched as she thought of his return later before she sighed contentedly. Perhaps he’d let her give him temporary rabbit ears to match his new tail. She giggled at the thought.
Truly, after all these years, all was finally well.