Finding Remus

Hermione invites Lupin to a magical convention, but the moment the two enter the underground venue, things take a turn for the strange. Even Severus is acting a bit peculiar...and who's that with him?

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1. Finding Remus

He was not on the corner, where they'd agreed to meet.

Hermione scanned the street, but saw only other umbrella-carrying commuters and a couple of diehard runners sloshing their way through the morning rain—a rain that turned to mist the moment it hit the street. In the foggy odd-light, everything about her seemed imbued with a trancelike quality, one that slowed even time's forward crush to a surreal crawl.

She glanced at her watch.

Bugger  that.

Time was not crawling, but ever steadily still tick-tick-ticking away; to make matters worse, he was late. Which also meant that now, she, who prided herself on punctuality, would also be late. Harry said this might happen, but why today—today of all days? She shook her coat sleeve over the offending time piece, hoping out of sight could influence out of mind, but knowing otherwise. I should have met him at Grimmauld Place, sighing, she stepped into the street.

A horn blared. Out of nowhere a double-decker bus burst through the rainy haze. Narrowly missing her, the bus drenched her with a spray of dirty puddle water. Then, belching a cloud of noxious blue exhaust in her face, it sped away, leaving her splay-legged on the curb.

Muttering a few favorite expletives in its wake, Hermione tried to brush off her coat. To her chagrin, her brand new, never-before-worn, green military jacket with brass buttons, a birthday gift from her mother, was soaked through. After shielding herself behind the Burberry's capacious ribs and whispering a furtive Scourgify, Hermione shouldered her umbrella and trudged grimly up the street.

Fifteen minutes later, she found him. Huddled under a tree on the outskirts of Kensington Gardens, Remus Lupin looked like the saddest man ever to sit on a park bench. Alone. Without a hat. In the rain. She'd been silently rehearsing a little speech about the merits of timeliness during her impromptu search, but after seeing him in such an utterly disheveled state, all she could muster was a half-exasperated, "Honestly!"

"Hermione, please accept this as a peace offering." Grinning sheepishly, he proffered a cup of tea.

She took the cup, but couldn't help noticing how badly his hand was trembling. "I was beginning to think I'd lost you," she said. Taking a sip for politeness' sake, she immediately had to conceal a wince. The tea was ice cold.

"I think I got turned about a bit somewhere..." Remus gestured toward the park. "I'm just not myself today. It's those blasted treatments. I'm sure Harry told you about them?" Nodding, Hermione started to answer, but he cut her off before she could say a single word. "After yesterday's, I went to the gate in Diagon Alley, but when I wasn't able to open it, well, I—I guess I just... Damn!" He dashed his cup of tea against a nearby trash bin.

A pair of elderly passersby glanced at them nervously.

"Remus, it's..." She wanted to reassure him, tell him that everything was just fine, but it wasn't. He wasn't. Harry had told her as much in his letters, but she hadn't wanted to believe it. In the months following his near-fatal injury at the Battle of Hogwarts, the were-virus responsible for saving his life had been wreaking steady havoc with him and the monthly treatments he received at St. Mungo's seemed to be doing more harm than good. Pale, thin, and stoop-shouldered: the man who stood before her now was a shadow of the friend she once knew, a scarecrow cloaked in frayed brown tweed. Glancing at his graying temples and gaunt cheeks, Hermione wondered, how much longer he could live like this.

As if echoing her thoughts, he murmured, "No, it's not alright. If Harry hadn't set a recognition charm over Grimmauld Place, I'd be sleeping on the streets." When he met her gaze, his bloodshot eyes were bright. "Perhaps I shouldn't have come, Hermione. You've worked so hard on this project, and I'll just be in the way."

"Rubbish!" She tossed her tea in the bin, linked her arm through his and gently, began guiding him down the street. "Besides, I haven't seen you in ages! We can catch up along the way!"

"It's been the better part of a year, give or take, but who's counting?" Brightening somewhat, eager to change the subject, he said, "What did you say the name of your group was, again?"

"The Coalition of Magical Beings. We promote equal opportunity and freedom from persecution for all minority entities: Centaurs, House-Elves, Vampires, and of course, Werewolves." Beaming, Hermione gave his arm an affectionate squeeze. "The convention today is a victory celebration of sorts."

"C.O.M.B.," Remus chuckled. "I'll bet your motto's, 'Detangling the knots of prejudice at every turn.'" He flashed an impish grin, and in that moment, a glimmer of the old Remus shone through. "From what I've heard, you've been enjoying yourself."

"Working with Kingsley this past year has been an amazing experience. The equality amendments, protective service legislation, and now, the convention—none of this could have happened without him!"

"I think you're being far too humble, as usual," Remus murmured. "A quality you'll have to adjust if you're considering a career in politics, I'm afraid." He favored her with a playful wink.

"A year ago, I would have agreed—about a career in politics, that is—but now, I find I'd rather work on the occasional project and leave politicking to those who have the aptitude for that sort of thing," Hermione said. "It's exhausting!"

"Speaking of which, I must say, I think being Minister suits Kingsley—his wardrobe, at least."

Moments later, the laughing pair turned their backs on London's soggy-bottomed bustle and headed down an alleyway between two abandoned buildings. Wind whistled through the empty sockets of their broken windows, and spray can graffiti festooned their crumbling brick walls. In the few spots not littered with bits of broken glass and soggy trash, thin clumps of frostbitten grass poked dejectedly through the alley's cracked pavement. A ramshackle, shed-like structure with a corrugated roof stood at its end.

"Remarkable shielding charm, Hermione," Remus said.

Not having the heart to tell him it wasn't, she said, "This part's a surprise!" She tapped the lock securing a circlet of rusty chains with her wand. Squealing in protest, the lift's shuttered iron gates slid open. A delicious aroma, attended by soft strains of music, wafted up and over them as the car rose to street level.

Eyeing the cramped space nervously, Remus said, "We're going underground?"

"Criss Crossing—at least, that's what it used to be before the Hogwarts Express was rerouted." Hermione closed her umbrella, leaving them for a moment at the mercy of October's bitter drizzle. "Now it's part of the Underall Network."

"Criss Crossing...yes, I think I remember reading something about this particular station," said Remus, rubbing the warmth back into his hands. "Some sort of sanctuary, wasn't it?"

"When the Death Eaters practically destroyed Diagon Alley, many of the merchants and their families—those who didn't want to flee, that is—hid down here. Then after the war, during the Alley's reconstruction, which was roughly the same time that Kingsley and I began the campaign for magical reform, members of the Society for Numinous Perpetuation—Goblins, you know— declared the station a site of historical interest and completely refurbished it. They fund its upkeep now by renting it out for various functions: weddings, parties, that sort of thing. When the Society's chairperson heard we were planning a convention to celebrate magical equality, she donated the space as a gesture of good faith! Wasn't that sweet?"

For a Goblin, he thought, it was nothing short of incredible. "Again, I think you're underestimating you persuasive abilities." He began running his hands over the lift's scarred steel walls. More to himself than Hermione, he murmured, "Ah, if these walls could speak..."

"Remus?" Hermione suddenly wished she hadn't stuffed him into such close quarters, but given his condition, apparating was out of the question. When he didn't answer, she attributed his strange behavior to the aftereffects of his most recent antivenin treatment.

The lift juddered to a halt. As its doors screed open, Remus whistled through his teeth.

"Wait until you see the rest!" Hermione pulled him onto a wide walkway.

To one side of them, a row of Floos flashed dazzling green and gold as groups of conventioneers exited. Flagstones covered the old train tracks, converting them into a recessed street, where troupes of wandering musicians strolled, and performers delighted travelers with their juggling and acrobatic antics. As it curved into shadow, the converted rail line ended in a series of Apparition Foyers.

Between the arched stone buttresses along the main platform, floating signs directed attendees to concessions, symposiums, and vendors, as well as passageways to destinations in Oldewych, Night's Bridge, and Diagon Alley. Hovering beneath the charmed ceiling, an undulating stream of will-o'-the-wisps imbued the arena with a festive glow.

Pausing at the entrance to the main convention arena, a long hallway with similarly arched walls and ceilings that bisected the entryway, Remus gasped in astonishment. "Why, it looks just like the Great Hall at St. Helling's!"

"It does indeed!"

The pair turned as Kingsley Shacklebolt, resplendent in a gilt-embroidered crimson cap and robe ensemble, swept regally out of a nearby passageway. Back to the pair, arms sweeping gracefully, he began, "And Criss Crossing's central location makes it accessible from virtually any spot in—erhm..." When he faced them, recognition quickly dawned, quashing his well-rehearsed magnanimity. Dropping his arms, he chuckled. "Oh, it's you—finally!"

"Sorry, had a bit of a late start this morning."

"That was my fault, not hers," Lupin added.

Kingsley, who apparently hadn't heard a word either said, was busily rummaging in one of his voluminous sleeves. "Oh, before I forget," he said, fishing an odd-looking, oval pendant from its hiding place in a velvet fold, "this is for you!" One side of the disc was black, while the outward-facing side resembled a mirror. A braided leather cord pierced through the upper portion of the disc, but left no perceptible hole. "I'm so pleased with the way they turned out," Kingsley gushed. "Now all our attendees will have a keepsake of this day! A symbol of all we have accomplished and hope to accomplish in the future: to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. So much nicer than the usual name badge, don't you think?"

"A mirror?" Remus stared at him incredulously.

In the distance, a clock tolled the half hour.

"Half-past, already?" Kingsley threw his hands in the air and wailed. "There's still so much to do before the opening address! Now, if you'll excuse me, I must see to the concessions booths. Winky's giving out free sausage samples to promote her new catering endeavor, and I just heard that the Blavatsky brothers have brought a barrel of their finest Bloody Ruse from Transylvania! It's never been available here before—not legally, at any rate—and I'm just dying for a taste! Well, see you inside!" With that, he whisked away into the crowd.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think he'd already sampled too much Bloody Ruse," Remus remarked after him. "Didn't he seem a bit strange to you, Hermione?"

"No more than usual," she chuckled. "Poor Kingsley, he always gets so flustered before giving a speech."

"Here." She proffered the pendant to Remus. "Oh, don't worry; it's charmed, not silvered."

Taking it, Remus turned it slowly in one hand. For such a small object, it possessed an almost formidable weight and chill, a cold that seemed to burn his fragile skin as it settled in the hollow of his palm. "Charmed, you say," he echoed.

"Yes—for vampires too, of course."

"Of course..." Remus peered into the mirror's softly rippling surface. Expecting the reflected stream of glowing will-o'-the-wisps overhead, he was shocked when he saw only thick cobweb swags swaying tiredly between the dilapidated buttresses.

Blinking back disbelief, he looked again. The cobwebs remained, but beneath those tattered, abandoned webs, a shadow shifted in the reflected station's gloom. "What in the name of Archimago," he began, but the air about him thickened and the flagstones suddenly listed beneath his feet. As he fought for purchase, the pendant slipped from his fingers. Following its descent, Remus crumpled to the walkway on his knees.

"Remus? Remus!" Seemingly miles away, Hermione's concerned voice echoed above him.

"Sorry...So clumsy of me." He reached for the pendant, which luckily, hadn't shattered into a billion glittering bits. Avoiding further eye contact with it, as well as the stares of nearby convention goers, Remus quickly handed it to Hermione. "Perhaps you should take this," he stammered as he scrambled to his feet. "Charmed or not, seven years of bad luck's the last thing I need!"

Slipping an arm around him, she said, "Are you sure you're up to this?"

Before she could question him any further, he said, "You know, one of Winky's sausages would really hit the spot right now. I usually don't have much of an appetite after my treatments, so this morning...I'm–I'm so sorry–I'm afraid I didn't eat anything."

The trembling, his odd behavior and near fainting: low blood sugar could account for all of that. "Of course!" Chiding herself for not recognizing his symptoms sooner, Hermione steered him inside. "Now that you mention it, I could fancy a bite, myself!"

Booths of all shapes and sizes lined the main hall's sides and formed irregular islands in its center aisle. Taken together, the effect created kind of an informal maze, an airy labyrinth of twists and switchbacks the pair would have to navigate in order to reach the crowded food stalls at the hall's far end.

Exotic aromas from restorative elixirs and potions wafted out to greet them as they passed Enthralling Essences, a Vampire franchise. Rare jewels and crystals flashed in the hilts of gleaming swords at Mogrod's Mettle, a Goblin-owned business, while another booth, owned by a family of Centaurs, featured a working forge amid its formidable assortment of crossbows and spears. A dizzying array of charms, baubles, and trinkets glinted from the flaps of one Hag's tent; and a squadron of flying trays from Weasley's Wizard Wheezes whizzed about the hall, showering conventioneers with confetti and offering free samples of George's most popular wares.

Remus chortled as the W-shaped formation passed overhead, "Leave it to George to promote unity through mischief!"

"The Magical Mercantile Association gave him a creative marketing award for that, you know," Hermione said.

One tray at the end of the unit doubled back and dipped low to hover in front of the pair.

"Puking Pastilles and Nosebleed Nougat?" Remus' shoulders heaved when he recognized the Skiving Snackbox assortment. "Thanks, but I'll pass."

While it should've zipped away on its business, the tray remained, blocking his path.

"Didn't you hear me?" Remus leaned over it. "Shoo!"

The tray still refused to budge.

"We'd better tell George. This one's defective," he said, laughing.

"Hey, if that's free food, we'll take it," a lanky youth in a passing group of wizards exclaimed. "Over here!" He and his comrades began waving and whistling.

Trailing confetti, the tray glided over to the three boys, who began gobbling its contents with greedy delight.

"You don't know what y'er missin'," one cried, moments before his face turned a very peculiar shade of green.

"Er... Enjoy!" Remus called after them.

A Romani Witch's hedge wagon was now all that stood between the two and a savory snack. As they passed it, a familiar figure burst through its beaded curtain. Trailing clouds of pungent incense and clutching an oversized Tarot deck to her chest as if it were the Holy Grail, Sybill Trelawney took one look at Hermione and nearly tumbled headlong down the bright red wagon's rickety steps.

"Sybill! Lovely to see you out and about again! Care to tell us what Mistress Fate has in store today?" Remus asked, although a bit too brightly.

"Oh, my dear, my dear, my dear girl!" Bug-eyed, the frowzy-haired seer advanced on Hermione with one arm outstretched. "Take care! Beware! Beware!"

Around them, conventioneers stopped their browsing and bartering. Abruptly, all movement at their end of the hall ceased, and the crowd's hearty babble quickly became an uncomfortable silence, a charged stillness tightly strung in the space between the two women.

Today? Really? Feeling hundreds of eyes upon her, Hermione took a deep breath, steeling herself for one of Sybill's unsolicited predictions. "Good morning, Professor Trelawney," she said evenly. "Remus and I were just..."

"No-no-no-no-noooo!" Swaying, Sybill moaned, "A shadow is upon you! A shadow!"

Now, a murmur rippled through the crowd. From the center of the hall, shuffling ensued, as attendees began vying for a better view of the coming spectacle. One wizard in particular found his former colleague's impromptu exhibition so interesting, he left his table of mood-enhancing sundries for couples unattended.

"I was only joking," Remus said, pulling Hermione close to him. "Really now, Sybill."

Imprisoned in her augury's momentous thrall, Sybill began circling the pair. When her arc brought her to the spot where Remus stood, she jerked her leading hand away with a disgusted shriek. "It's worse— much, much worse than I feared! I sense a walking darkness—a—a—malingering shade!"

"That's enough! Remus said he was sorry." Throwing herself between them, Hermione hissed, "I demand that you stop it this instant!"

The knot of gawping attendees tightened around the three. Those closest to the escalating incident exchanged confused looks. Behind them, others began pointing and whispering.

Curious to see what all the fuss was about, the members of another group transfigured themselves into a small colony of bats. Wheeling noiselessly about the periphery, they watched the unfolding drama with hungry interest.

"Did you hear what I said?" Hermione stepped closer. "Leave us alone!"

Sybill fell silent. Still swaying, she stared vacantly at a certain spot beside Hermione. As soundless tears trickled down her cheeks, a black-clad figure broke through the crush of bewildered attendees.

"Severus, I can explain," Remus began.

"Indeed," Snape lowered, in a voice that possessed all the warmth of an arctic moon. Black eyes flickering to Hermione, he said, "I believe you owe Miss Trelawney an apology."

"Me?"

"Please, Miss Granger, don't make a scene."

"It's not her fault, Severus," Remus entreated. "If you'd just let me—"

Silencing any attempt at explanation with a raised hand, Snape said, through gritted teeth, "A simple apology will suffice."

Hermione crossed her arms. "I'll do no such thing!"

"Very well, then," Severus sighed. Placing his delicate, long-fingered hands on the trembling woman's shoulders, he said, "Come with me, Sybill."

Collapsing against his chest, Sybill half-whispered half-snuffled something to him.

"It is frightful, yes...Perhaps you and Madame Leonora can commiserate over a cup of tea," he said, nodding to the gypsy caravan.

"You're unbelievable!" Hermione screamed.

"No, it is you who doesn't understand," Severus shot over his shoulder.

"Then explain it to me!"

"You must admit, they make a lovely couple." Remus smirked. While Hermione glowered at Snape, overhead, the bat chorus added their opinions.

One bat broke from the colony and swooped down, settling inches away from Severus' ear, as if it had a juicy secret that it just couldn't wait to share with the black-clad man. While he calmly nodded in the short silences between its flaps and squeaks, Trelawney, who was apparently unschooled in Chiropteran telepathy, decided to end the conversation with her own version of bat-speak: a flurry of Tarot cards and an ear piercing, "Eeeeee!"

"Yes, Sybill...I know—I know," Snape said, as he marched the gibbering seer up the wagon's steps and deposited her on the lading, where a glaring Madame Leonora waited. "Don't worry," he said silkily to her. "I'll soon set things right."

Madame Leonora muttered something under her breath and spit between her fingers at him. Then she dragged the still shrieking Sybill inside her vardo.

"What things?" Hands on hips, Hermione regarded him narrowly.

Cap askew, Kingsley Shacklebolt burst through the crowd. Hot on his heels, slavering for the latest scandal, Rita Skeeter followed. "What in Hecate's name is happening here?" he huffed.

"Kingsley," sighed Remus. "I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding."

Turning, Kingsley said, "What did you say, Miss Skeeter?"

Rita looked up from her notepad. "I didn't say anything, Minister."

"Are you sure?" Shacklebolt scratched his head. "Just now, I could've sworn that you did."

"I heard it, too. I'll bet it was her, throwin' her voice," one onlooker cried, nodding at Hermione. "That's quite a trick, girl!"

Speaking over him, a woman cried, "It's no trick: it's a spirit! Don't you remember what Miss Trelawney said?"

"Trelawney? That old bird's one bat short of a belfry." A hoary eared Goblin stabbed a pointy-nailed finger at Hermione. "She's gone and raised the dead. Nasty business, that," he spat.

"Forgive me, Hermione. I think I've just unwittingly started Wizarding War Three," Remus whispered.

"Why, that's ridiculous," Skeeter clipped. "No spell can raise the dead!"

"No spell is required, only the desire for reawakening," a melodic voice replied imperiously from a nearby swirl of mist.

A statuesque redhead with skin as creamy as her silk shift—a sylph more suited for immortalization on an artist's canvas than in a column of enchanted newsprint (and one possessing an obvious disdain for foundation garments of any kind)—suddenly materialized beside Skeeter, startling her so badly she nearly impaled herself on her Quick-Quotes Quill. A wry smile playing upon her lips, she added, "Isn't that right, Severus?"

"Ooooh!" While Skeeter eyed the unlikely couple, her charmed, but less-than-enchanting, quill started scribbling on its floating notepad.

"And this must be your darling Hermione!" The ethereal woman clasped her hands against her chest. "Severus has told me so much about you."

"Darling? Why, Severus, you old dog!" Goggle-eyed Remus turned to him. "And all this time, I thought the two of you were... " He motioned to the beautiful, barely dressed vampire.

"All what time?" Hermione said, bristling. "Severus, who is this?"

"Ever the double agent, eh, Snape? I guess love is the Darkest Art of all," Skeeter cackled. "Oh, this is just juicy!"

Impervious to cackles or bristles, the strange woman glided over to Lupin on a tendril of mist. "Oh, Remus, I must say, you're looking a little worse for wear since last we met."

Kingsley gawped at the woman. "Are you mad? There's no one...there..." He waved his hand towards the spot where Remus stood.

"I demand an explanation!" Fists clenched, Hermione started towards Severus.

Severus drew out each syllable of his next statement as though he were parsing an ancient text, "They...can't...see...him."
 

"Can't see him? Don't be absurd! I see him, you see him—and so does she," Hermione said, adding under her breath, "whoever she is."

"I can see him because of what I am; you see only what you want to see," the woman said softly.

Laying a hand on her shoulder, Remus said, "Hermione, this is Estrella De Mortis, head of lycanthropic research at Invisible University. She said that this might happen. It's the treatments, you see." Remus shook his head. "There's something about them I haven't told you—or Harry, for that matter—although I'm sure you've already guessed that they're not wolfsbane."

"Lupin," Snape said in his best now-is-not-the-time tone.

"She deserves an explanation, Severus." Leaning into Hermione, he whispered, "The therapy's experimental, quite controversial, actually. It contains a reactive component, one whose therapeutic value is only recognized by certain scientific circles."

"You knew about this?" Hermione shot at Severus.

His body stiffened, but his face remained an implacable mask. "While you and Kingsley were gallivanting across Great Britain paving a path for magical equality, Professor De Mortis and I have been collaborating on this project," he said.

What other secrets have you been keeping from me? Hermione wondered.

Brow slightly arched and an ever-so-imperceptible smirk playing upon his lips, Severus silently savored her jealousy.

Remus sighed, "Unfortunately, the serum produces certain, untoward side effects, one of them being a diminishment of magical ability. In other words, it makes me virtually invisible in this world." He shrugged. "It's the reason I couldn't enter Diagon Alley yesterday. I thought the effects would abate overnight, but then, this morning, when I saw only a shadow in your charmed mirror..." He indicated the pendant around Hermione's neck. "As much as I hate to admit this, Sybill was right."

"Invisible University, you say?" Hermione scowled, trying to remember what she'd read about the progressive but exclusive institution. "A reactive component?"

Remus squeezed her hand. "Now, don't look so worried, Hermione!"

Invisible University...it was cloaked for a reason...cloaked—and daggered. Her head shot up. "Vampire blood," she said flatly to Estrella. "You've been injecting him with vampire blood." Her mind raced forward, exploring all possible ramifications of that statement.

"I've been given every assurance that the effects are just temporary." Desperate, Remus turned to Snape. "Tell her, Severus."

Severus turned to Estrella. A look passed between them. A conversation conveyed in a glance that seemed to last for an eternity.

"Severus?"

He turned to Remus. "You knew there would be... risks."

Estrella cleared her throat, silencing him. "Any scientific endeavor is, by nature, a fluid process, and as such, must evolve through a series of modifications to address existent or suspected imperfections in the..." She shook her head. Then, opening her arms to him, as if in supplication, she said, "We learn from our mistakes, no?"

Remus winced. "Oh."

"Destroying the wizard as well as the werewolf is more than a mistake, it's ghastly—a grossly unethical violation of–of..." Hermione spluttered. "Remus, I can't believe you consented to this!" 

Rounding on Snape, she spluttered, "And you! You're supposed to be his friend!"

Almost no one noticed that darkness was falling fast to the beat of black wings. First doubling, and then tripling in number, the twittering colony of bats overhead was becoming a burgeoning thunderhead—a flapping, funneling darkness that sucked unsuspecting will-o'-the-wisps into its churning eddy.

"Hermione, there was no other way," Remus murmured.

"You could have avoided this, you know," Snape drawled.

"How would that have looked, Severus? I couldn't disappoint Hermione on her special day!"

"We had an agreement, Lupin." Snape folded his hands in his cloak.

"Is that really you, Remus?" Shacklebolt patted the spot between Hermione and Estrella with tentative hands.

Clapping him on the shoulder, Remus said, "In the flesh, Kingsley— well, more or less."

Realization finally dawning, the Minister rounded on Snape. "Experimenting with a human test subject? Avalon's Mists! You'll be clapped in Azkaban for this!"

"For making medical history? I think not," Estrella sniffed. "Do you not think we planned for this very contingency?" She flashed Severus a toothy grin.

"No-no-no-no-no," Hermione moaned.

"Medical-shmedical! Open your eyes, Minister," Rita Skeeter shrilled. "Their purported cure for lycanthropy is a ruse as bloody as Blavatsky's contraband wine!"

"It's a liqueur and it's delicious. You can quote me on that." Kingsley poke-poked her notepad and then, hiccoughed.

The pink plume swatted his hand away and resumed its furious scratching.

Skeeter wheeled to face the crowd. "Are all of you blind? They're creating an army of Vampires—and she's behind it!" She jabbed a meticulously manicured finger at Hermione. "All her talk about unity and equality this past year has been just twaddle! Why do you think she lured you all here today? Well, I won't stand for it!"

As a wand suddenly materialized in her hand, frissons of fear and confusion rippled through the crowd.

"I would reconsider that course of action if I were you," Estrella said, signaling to the swirling cumulonimbus overhead.

"As well as your usual escape plan," Snape drawled. "They eat insects, you know."

"Beezles." Shacklebolt sagely nodded before hiccoughing again.

"All I wanted to eat was a sausage," Remus wailed.

Skeeter recoiled. "I hadn't thought of that." Sighing, she lowered her wand.

"There's a good girl." Shacklebolt patted her arm. "Never dreamed I'd be saying this, to you, of all people, but the quill is mightier than—"

Her wand rose so fast, it almost put out his eye. "Aurora Conflagros!"

A lightning bolt zinged from the wand's tip. Striking the center of the bat dervish, it exploded, filling the room with blinding light and blazing heat. Bats nearest the blast's epicenter turned to ash on contact. The unlucky rest burst into flame and fell screeching into the crowd.

The walls of the old station shuddered. Silt, raining from the cracked ceiling, shrouded everything in a gritty grey veil. Roiling and thick, noxious clouds of dust and smoke filled the crowded hall. Panicked and blinded, screaming conventioneers began pushing and shoving, overturning booths and tables, and trampling one another in their efforts to escape.

"Remus? Severus?" Gagging from the stench, groping blindly, Hermione staggered forward. Her toe caught something on the floor. Something that felt large and soft and terribly still as she toppled over it. Behind her, someone pushed. Hard. The flagstones crumbled beneath her feet and then she was falling, plummeting into nothingness, grey and unfathomable...

She bolted upright, swallowing a scream.

"Oh."

Pale morning stippled the tiny room with silvery light.

Beside her, in a tangle of sheets, Severus watched her resurface from the realm of In-Between.

"You were very far away just now," he said, stroking her arm. "For a moment, I didn't think you were coming back."

Snuggling beside him, Hermione traced the angle of his jaw to a series of puckered scars on his neck. "You know, for a moment, I didn't, either. It was all so real. We were at the convention and... and..." but all of a sudden, she could not find the words. They, much like the images in her head, dissipated when she reached for them. Like breath on a mirror.

"I suspect you're just working through some last minute anxiety. Always working...even in your sleep." He lowered himself over her. "Really, Miss Granger," he murmured between kisses, "you must learn how to relax."

"And how would you suggest I do that, Master Snape?" she asked, wriggling against his familiar warmth and weight.

He nudged her gently with his hips.

Wrapping herself around him, carried on his gentle rhythm, Hermione whispered, "Seriously, Severus, do you think I'm doing the right thing?"

"Oh, absolutely, Miss Granger," he sighed. "Absolutely!"

 

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