The Infirmary smelled of starched sheets and medicines. It had arched windows facing the school grounds that made the space feel bright and airy; patches of the granite stone floor lit up and warmed by the afternoon sun. Hermione was already starting to feel at home.
She pulled the desk chair over to perch on top of it precariously. The tiny cubicle that was the matron's office was an almost perfect square, and the tightness of space meant that the bookcases had to be extended upwards. It suited her short frame rather poorly.
"Do you need a hand with those?"
The voice nearly startled her into dropping the thick book of medical spells she was trying to fit into the overstuffed shelf.
"Oh…hello." She gave them a final shove before turning, grimacing a bit over the threatening creak of the bookcase. When she jumped down from the chair, a pair of blue eyes greeted her.
"I didn't mean to startle you," said a man in fitted robes. He was tall, with the hint of a stubble on his cheeks, and dark, wavy hair in deliberate disarray. He held out a hand. "The name is Cavan," he said. "You asked for me?"
"Right, I did." She grasped it, taking in the man she knew to be the head of Slytherin House. For some odd reason she had not expected someone quite as… dashing. "Professor Hern," she said, "it's a pleasure. Hermione Granger, I'm the mediwitch. And you're defence professor, right?"
"That's me." He smiled winningly.
"Wonderful." She extended a hand towards her guest chair. "Have a seat, Professor."
"Please," he said, "the name is Cavan, but my friends just call me Cav. I'm not yet used to this 'professor' thing." He chuckled. "It still just makes me feel old."
"Really?" She appraised him dubiously, he surely couldn't be much older than her.
"But thank you." He sat, still watching her with keen attention. "I'm not sure I can help you if you wanted to discuss one of the students though," he said, "I'm new here as of last week."
"No problem." She smiled as well; glad he was the easy-going type. "And no, it's not. It's about you, in fact."
"Me?" he asked, straightening a little. "You're making me nervous now, Matron."
"Call me Hermione." She sat down too, choosing the seat across from him so that her small desk was between them. Her office was really too tiny for meetings of any kind.
"There's nothing to be nervous about though," she reassured him. "I have a question for you, that's all. You see, I'm new here as well, and I've been having problems with the bookkeeping." She added ruefully, "I imagine I'll be quite busy once the eleven-year-olds starts waving brand new wands around here, so I'd like to get it sorted as soon as possible."
"Right." He winced. "I suppose a fair few of those accidents will be in my class?"
There was a dimple in his left cheek. She supposed he was the kind of man she might have been attracted to as a schoolgirl. Luckily though, he seemed nowhere near as conceited as Gilderoy Lockhart.
"I don't know about that," she said with a shrug. "If I remember my own schooldays correctly, Potions was the subject with the most mishaps." She rolled her eyes. "That, and flying, of course."
Hern chuckled. "I'll be substituting the flying lessons from mid-October," he said. "I expect we'll be seeing a lot of each other then."
He seemed pleased with that and she suddenly found herself a little flustered. "Who taught Defence before you then?" she asked hastily.
Hern frowned, his eyes drawing upwards and to the left. "I'm told it was shared between Professors, ah…" He thought for a moment. "Vector and Snape, I believe. But I suppose they both retired?"
"Oh, Professor Snape is still here," she informed him. "He teaches potions."
His indifference puzzled her slightly. Most people knew who Professor…Severus was, if only as the Death Eater that betrayed Voldemort.
"You never attended Hogwarts, did you? I can't recall having seen you here before."
"No, no," he replied. "I grew up abroad, my education was in Beauxbatons. My mother is half-French, you see."
Well, that would explain it. After having saved Snape in the Shrieking Shack, Harry had worked very hard to get him pardoned. But still, many people associated him strongly with the dark side and she knew that his comeback to teaching had been turbulent to say the least. It was the reason why Filius Flitwick was Headmaster now, and not he.
But it seemed that teaching potions suited him better now than it had when she was a girl, as he both looked and acted more relaxed. She had picked up Rose in the Library the previous day, where she had found them together in a small nook by the windows and she had been entirely baffled to discover that he was reading aloud to her from –of all conceivable things– Winnie-the-Pooh.
He had even been wearing reading glasses, and although his face carried a somewhat unhealthy pallor, he looked almost the same as before, apart from some grey in his hair and a few more lines on his face. To her surprise, most of them were around the corner of his eyes and they softened his appearance in a way she found was rather pleasing…
"So what did you want to ask about?"
Hern's voice brought her back to the present. "Sorry," she said, "I got distracted."
"No problem." He smiled with even teeth. "Is this about the Grindylows again? Because I ordered them through the Herbology budget and Longbottom didn't seem pleased when they were delivered to Greenhouse Four."
Hermione internally shuddered. The Hogwarts accounting system was apparently one huge mess and it rubbed her inner neat freak very much the wrong way. No wonder she was having difficulties.
"No," she said. "This is another reposting." She pulled over the thick folder from where she had left it on the corner of the table and pointed out a few of the unaccounted numbers.
"Angel's trumpet," muttered Hern. "They're rather expensive. What is it for?"
"I have no idea." Hermione shook her head. "Encyclopaedia Herba lists it as a class A toxin. I assumed they were for potions, but Filius informed me that both Professors Longbottom and Snape denies having anything to do with it. I'm starting to suspect that someone has been using school funds to…" She waved an arm around haplessly. "Well, I have no idea what the point would be. They are not used in any potions I'm familiar with, and I know of a fair few."
"I don't know either," said Hern. "Did you ask the supplier?"
"That's just the thing." She indicated an empty slot in the form. "They aren't listed. Look, Professor, ah…" She smiled awkwardly. "Sorry. Cavan. I know I shouldn't bother you with this now, just when term is about to start and I know you must be terribly busy, but Filius suggested I mention it to you. He said you had a background in the Auror force, and that you might have a suggestion as to what I should do next."
"Well, he's right about that." Hern scratched his hair. "I suppose I could research it for you, it should be easy enough. Just don't expect an immediate result." He pulled the folder to him. "Would you mind terribly if I borrow this?"
"Of course," Hermione said. "And really, take the time you need. It's awfully kind of you to help."
"Don't worry," he said, looking up at her. "It's my pleasure. And in any case, it gives me an excuse to brush up with a few of my contacts at the French Ministry."
He kept on watching her, seeming for the first time a little hesitant. "Listen," he said, "Longbottom invited me to Hogsmeade next Saturday. You know, for a few drinks before the start of term. Sinistra and Poe will be there as well, and maybe even Flitwick. Perhaps you'd like to join us?"
"Oh." Hermione faltered. She rarely went out these days and had never really been much of a party animal. But it seemed like a good opportunity to get friendly with her colleagues and it was nice of him to ask. "I'll think about it," she said. "Thanks for inviting me…but I'd need someone to babysit my daughter in that case, and I don't feel like I've quite settled in yet…"
"Oh," he said, sounding mildly disappointed. "You have a child?"
"Yes." She couldn't quite suppress a proud smile. "Her name is Rose. She's five and a right chatterbox. I'm surprised you haven't met her yet."
"I'll look forward to that then." Hern stood, stretching a pair of long legs. "Well, I'll let you know about Saturday. It'll probably be sometime after dinner."
"That's kind of you." She nodded. "And thanks for the assistance. I'll be seeing you around then."
The smile was back. "Yeah," he said. "Sure thing, Hermione."
"And then I visited Professor Trelawney in the tower. Her office smells funny and she has a huge glass marble there and a black, grumpy cat." Rose giggled. "It reminds me of you."
"Does it now?" Severus put his knife down to look at her. She had taken supremacy of his brown leather armchair, small feet tucked up beneath her and the hem of his coat draped over her knees. Her hair was in a tidy plait today, the light from the crackling fire behind her making it glow orange, and she had brought along a soft-looking, furry teddy. "Surely, I'm not that bad?"
"You're not at all bad," she said artlessly. "And the cat is very pretty. His name is Mint."
Severus returned to the dicing, hiding a small smile behind his hair. Rose, he had learned, was an affectionate soul and words of endearment seemed to come just as easy to her as unbridled honesty. For some old reason it made him feel inclined to spend time with her. She was much less prejudiced towards him than most and Granger must have treaded gently when speaking of him, however curious that was.
"Why don't you ever talk while you're brewing?"
"Hm." He shifted a little to shake out his left arm, which still tended to ache when he grew tired. The light from the window to the Black Lake made his pale hand look almost blue. "I'm listening to you."
"Oh." She seemed puzzled. "Who talks to you when I'm not here?"
"No one," he said, "I'm usually by myself."
He couldn't see her face with his back turned to her, but a hint of sadness had crept into her tone. "Don't you get lonely?"
"No," he said, "I'm used to that. And when the students arrive, there will be people everywhere."
It wasn't exactly a lie. But although he'd long since given up on the hope that there was someone out there that could be something special to him, he couldn't deny that he sometimes wished he had someone around to call his friend.
"Well you don't have to be alone anymore," said Rose brightly, "I'm here now."
He wiped his hands on a rug and walked around his circular desk. "Yes you are," he said, opening one of the creaky drawers and pulling out a packet of biscuits. "And I couldn't wish for better company."
He sat in the chair next to hers and heated an old cup with his wand, inhaling deeply when the smell of tealeaves mixed with that of dust and potion ingredients. "I need a break now. You want one of these?"
"They are my favourites," she said, fumbling eagerly with the crunching packet. "Mum always says they're bad for my teeth, but she says that about almost everything. Her parents used to be dentists."
"I know," said Severus, resigning himself to a small sprinkle of sugar rather than his usual spoonful. "And I suppose she's right."
Rose was biting tiny pieces off the edge of her biscuit as though she wanted it to last as long as possible. "What are you making?" she asked with a glance at his workspace, "and why am I not allowed to touch it?"
"That…" Severus faltered for a moment. "It's a potion that's supposed to cure… sick people," he said. "And you should never go near someone's cauldron unless there's an adult with you. They can blow up and some of the ingredients can be dangerous unless you know what you're doing."
"But you know that," she said confidently. "Mum told me you're the potions master, and that means you can brew almost anything."
For some reason, the words made him inexplicably pleased. "Yes," he said. "I can brew many things. And when you're older, you can do so as well."
"Will you teach me?" She looked hopeful, the hunger for knowledge lighting up her eyes.
"Perhaps." He hesitated, feeling reluctant to disappoint her. "When you start Hogwarts, you'll learn," he said. "Be it from me or someone else…"
He sipped his hot tea, frowning when his gaze strayed over the numerous flasks and book piles that littered the floor. He hadn't tidied for a while and cobwebs and dust had started to gather on top of them and on the rickety stack of spare cauldrons he kept in a corner. He sighed.
"Mum works with curing sick people," said Rose. "She says everyone should try to make things better for each other. When I scrubbed my knee and started bleeding, she just put her wand on it and it was all better." She looked at him expectantly. "Is that why you work with making potions as well?"
"Ah…" Severus leaned back in his chair, slightly uncomfortable under her penetrating stare. He could not tell a five-year old that he had sold his soul to the first and best evil megalomaniac who crossed his path, but he supposed he should be at least somewhat honest with her. "I must admit that was probably not the main reason," he said. "Not everyone can be as noble as your mother."
Rose frowned. "Why did you want to do it then?"
"I was good at it," he said. "And I suppose I wanted to be even better. I liked brewing a lot, even when I was a boy."
"Did you?" She watched him attentively. "How old? Like me?"
Severus traced the rim of his cup. It had small chips on it in places and the rough skin on his thumb caught on the uneven edge. "Maybe I was a little bigger than you," he said, "but not much… My mother knew how to make potions. She was a witch as well, and sometimes, when my father was…away, she would take me to Diagon Alley to get ingredients."
He turned his eyes to the fireplace, lost in the memory. "The apothecary is still the same today," he told her. "Slug and Jiggers, although they both died before you were born."
"Yes," said Rose. "I've been there too."
"I found it utterly fascinating," he said. "Mother would buy leech juice and frog brain, and drops of morning dew inside little flagons that were made out of green glass..." He turned back to her. "She only owned one pewter cauldron, but she actually preferred to brew in a regular kettle." He chuckled gently. "She liked to do things her own way, my mother. Always made Pepper-up with chili instead of fire seeds."
"Was she the one to teach you?" Rose had edged forward on her seat, bright brown eyes glinting in the candlelight from the wall sconce.
"Sometimes she'd let me watch," he said. "She would put her red apron on and let me sit on the kitchen counter and say 'Sev, now you sit very still and you might just learn something that can change your life'. Then she didn't say another word until she was done."
"And did it?" asked Rose.
He shook his head, confused. "What?"
"Change your life?"
"Yes," he said, closing his eyes for a moment. "Yes, it did. Just not in the way I had expected."
"Mum knows how to make potions as well," said Rose. "When I grow up, I want to be just as good as you, and make potions that can cure anything."
"I'm sure you will," he said. "And you'll be better than I ever was."
She had quickly figured out that the easiest way to locate Rose was simply to ask Peeves. The nosy poltergeist had a firm grasp on Hogwarts' pulse, and he seemed to take delight in telling her that 'the little spitfire' was in the dungeon with the 'greasy bat'.
She picked her way down there, cautious of hidden trick steps, and allowed old memories to wash over her as she went. She walked by the painting that led into the Kitchens if you tickled one of the pears, and smiled to herself when she passed Snape's storeroom. His office was next to that, just beside the potions classroom they had used when she was a child.
The door was slightly ajar, and she crept inside silently, watching as Snape bent over Rose to point at something on the table.
He wore the same spectacles she had seen him wear the day before and she was almost disappointed when he quickly pulled them off his face and hid them in a pocket.
"Hello," he said, "Miss… Hermione."
"There you are," she said, catching Rose as she jumped up for a hug. "What are you two up to?"
"We're making potions," said Rose proudly. Her sweater was pulled up to her elbows and the braid Hermione had worked so hard on this morning was all mussed up and frizzy.
"Are you really?" Hermione's eyes widened as she took in the clutter on Snape's work desk. There was a small cauldron there, with a sticky sludge inside, including several pieces of what must have been leftover from his brewing. She caught sight of a few weevils without the eyes, and a disembodied newt tail, and was that a biscuit…?
"It's to make people feel better," said Rose. "And comfort them when they are sad." Hermione frowned at her in question.
"Rose made a 'hug balm'," explained Severus. "Her very own creation." He looked at her warily. "There's nothing dangerous in there."
Hermione stifled a chuckle. "I'm sure it's a potent brew," she said, still amazed at how much softer he was. Never could she have imagined the grumpy teacher of her schooldays allowing a five-year old to play potions all over his office.
Snape relaxed a little. "Your girl is a diligent student," he said. "She resembles you a lot."
She raised her eyebrows in mock-horror and he was quick to add, "I meant that as a compliment."
Hermione couldn't contain a small snort at that, because surely, Snape had loathed her as a student, but then he surprised her by looking almost shamefaced. "I never much gave you the credit you deserved back then," he said with a small grimace, "it was not a happy time for me."
"Of course." She gave an understanding smile, more than willing to offer him a second chance. "I'm merely teasing you, Severus. That was all a long time ago."
"It was." He seemed relieved that she had let him off the hook. "Thankfully…"
She wondered if it must have been hard for him, picking his way back towards a normal life when the entire magical population had reason to hold him hostage for his past deeds. She knew that many people thought he should have been sent to Azkaban despite his effort in the war, and even more of them had objected when he resumed his post at Hogwarts. Whatever one might say about him, he had not lived an easy life. She glanced down at his left arm, lost in thought. Did he still have Voldemort's mark there, etched into his skin?
Rose pulled at her sleeve. "Mum," she said, "I'm hungry. What's for supper?"
Hermione smiled down at her. "Leftovers from yesterday. Are you coming?"
"Just a moment." Rose wriggled out of her arms and skipped over to the table.
"It's for you," she said as she picked the tiny cauldron up and offered it to Snape. "For when you're sad and I'm not here."
"For me?" Snape took the cauldron in both hands, looking stunned. "That's very kind of you, Rose…thank you."
"You're welcome," she said brightly. "Just don't use it all at once. We're out of biscuits."
Snape seemed incapable of further speech so Hermione said goodbye and took Rose's hand to lead her out into the hall.
"Why did you do that?" she asked when they were out of earshot. "I think you made him a little uncomfortable, Rose. Maybe you should have given that to Professor Flitwick instead."
Rose looked up at her, exasperated. "Don't be silly Mum," she said. "Sev'rus needs it more."
As they made their way through the chilly Dungeon corridors, Hermione thought that maybe Rose was right.