Beta(s): Whitehound, Lady Memory
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: Everything started because of the storm.
Note: This story is based on a lovely episode of Lark Rise to Candleford. Those who have seen it will probably recognize some things that I've borrowed even though, of course, I've adapted the idea to the HP universe. When I saw that episode and its magical atmosphere, I immediately thought that it would be suitable for an SSHG tale, that you can see here. Because the series is based on a semi-autobiographical story I have assumed that the ritual it contains really happened, at least in Victorian days. Many thanks to the wonderful friends who helped me with their suggestions and editing.
Summary: When the wind blows and the storm arrives, people can find that more than just a gale is coming.
Oblivious of the awful weather that made his walk seem arduous, and even less conscious of the snow that at Christmas-time covered everything, Severus was wandering by the lake below the castle.
That morning he had woken up gripped by a great restlessness, feeling the irresistible impulse to get out. Given that he could never be defined as quiet or restful - and that for a long time he had had every reason to be anxious and dissatisfied with every awakening on every day of his life - one could have thought that this morning was no different from any other. But it was, and the compulsion to get out was very strong, as if the answer to his struggle, which he had yet to find, could be found only out there.
In fact, after a long recovery from his brush with death, it had taken some time for him to decide what to do with his unexpected and undesired survival.
From a material perspective, he had to accept that there weren't many options for a man who had lived all his adult life as a teacher. He wasn't in a position to be picky about the offer of re-employment, given the way in which people still regarded him, despite the pardon he had been granted when his true loyalties had been revealed. He hadn't overcome the feelings of inadequacy, bitterness and gloom that had accompanied him all over his life, but he had tried to accept the many years to come that were still ahead of him.
So, Hogwarts it had been again, and it hadn't been as bad as he had feared, thanks in part to a few of his old colleagues, who had visited him in hospital and had shown regret for the past, and affection. They had renewed their welcome, and he had realized that he could deal with being close to them again, he could do that, indeed.
What burdened his thoughts, however, were the innovations that the post-war world had brought; of course life had improved compared to that during the dreadful times of Voldemort's supremacy, but not all the decisions taken by the new Ministry of Magic had been easy to accept. Obviously there was a price to pay for renovation, he knew that, and yet at some point Severus had begun to think that he couldn't afford any further change; he couldn't risk becoming involved in anything else again, if he wished to carry on with his own life.
A snowstorm was approaching, the wind was hissing and blowing hard, but Snape didn't seem to notice. He cast a warming charm on himself and went on walking, breathing with pleasure the chilly air that surrounded him. But the storm was making his steps more and more difficult while the cold slowly grew overwhelmingly freezing.
Snape turned on his heels, finally acknowledging the wisdom of a safe return; he was ready to Apparate away when a vision froze him in his tracks. A poorly dressed and shivering boy with straggling dark hair and a snub nose stood in front of him.
Stunned, Snape looked at him with disbelief and cried, "Are you insane? What are you doing out here without the slightest protection against the cold?"
The boy smiled a tremulous smile and didn't answer.
He looked lost, but if he had succeeded in finding the place, then he had to know magic, Snape quickly thought; also, he seemed to be old enough to use a wand, so why didn't he cast a warming charm or conjure a cloak for himself? Was he possibly a Squib?
Severus sent a non-verbal charm to warm the boy up, but it didn't seem to work; the lad was still shuddering under the falling snow.
"Come with me, you silly child, we'll light a fire in the fireplace and you'll feel better," Snape urged, anguished with inexplicable force by the other's condition.
Once again the boy smiled his sad smile. "There's not flames enough in this world to warm me," he answered. "And the wind do blow."
Then, as if the said wind could take him away, he draw back toward the lake, and in a few seconds the storm prevented Severus from seeing him anymore.
There were so few customers at the Hog's Head that night… and no wonder in that, Aberforth Dumbledore thought. The snowstorm had been raging for hours, and even though magical people could deal with it better than other folks, they still preferred anyway to wait for a calmer moment to go out.
The wind was howling and the fire was crackling when the old wizard heard a familiar, loved voice calling him.
"Do you hear the words in the wind, Abe?" his sister Ariana said. "Maybe it's time for you to go and make things right. It's about time, it says…"
The man looked at the portrait, disconcerted. As the windows were clattering, he didn't notice the lonely figure of a very homesick boy, who was looking wide-eyed at the warm room beyond the dirty glass.
Back at the castle and trying to relax in his chambers, Severus couldn't forget the strange meeting and the boy. In spite of the raging storm he had searched for him, he had tried to follow the child, to trace him with a spell, increasingly worried for his safety. But the boy had disappeared as if Portkeyed, so Severus had had to give up the search. Now, however, such an explanation didn't seem right anymore, and Severus was beginning to doubt of his own senses. Had he had a relapse to the hallucinations which he had suffered during his long recovery? Something was amiss, he was sure of that, but damned if he could put his finger on it! The disquiet that had agitated him before hadn't lessened, but rather it seemed to increase even more.
The little cottage was warm and full of light, but the heat spreading between the two people inside it was of a very different kind.
"Of course you will go," Hermione was saying, her defeated tone at the end of a long quarrel in jarring contradiction with her words of agreement.
"I will, yes, and not because you say so," her companion declared, his tone less harsh than in the previous moments, as if he, too, had realized that a point of no return had been reached and that there was no need to shout anymore.
'Maybe he always runs away because I'm not enough for him. Or rather, because I'm too much' she thought, looking at Ron's back as he left, crossing the threshold.
Then, as if all the energy that had fuelled the meeting had gone with him, she dropped to the floor like an unanimated rag doll. In the background, the decorations on the Christmas tree rattled, and the freezing wind seemed to creep through the window even though it was closed.
The few Professors who were at Hogwarts during the holidays had all gathered at the high table when a slightly excited Headmistress joined them. Minerva sat in her usual place, then she drew Snape's attention by patting him gently on the hand.
"You wouldn't guess whom I saw earlier," she started.
The two of them had clarified matters as soon as he had been able to receive and listen to somebody after his ordeal; so, having re-established the camaraderie they had shared before the last war, he was by then accustomed to her friendly manners and to such gestures.
Still bewildered by his recent meeting, Snape didn't take her words as the rhetorical question they were, but he voiced his inner thoughts by returning her query.
"A lost boy?"
"What?" she exclaimed, baffled. Then, still engrossed by the scene that she had witnessed, and craving to tell her friend about it, the witch went on with her tale, postponing a further enquiry about the strange words Severus had said.
"Having forgotten an item I needed, I was just going to my office when I heard a voice coming from inside. Annoyed by the intrusion but curious about the intruder, I changed into my Animagus form and entered silently, and then… Severus, he was there, old Abe, talking to his brother without noticing anything else!" she ended, pleased.
Snape raised an eyebrow, then waited for her to continue.
"It seems that they were finally able to talk to each other, and to make it up. After a little while, when I thought that the right moment had come, I transformed again, I coughed softly to make them aware of my presence — although I suspect that Albus had sensed it already — and then I asked what Abe was doing there."
Eyes widened with childish excitement, as if emphasizing the extraordinary nature of the response she had received, Minerva paused before going on.
"Aberforth told me the most lovely tale about the way in which their sister Ariana helped the students to and from the Room of Requirement and the pub, during the year when you had to maintain your cover as evil Headmaster. One day, in doing so — he said — she visited Albus's portrait and learned of his remorse towards her and all his family."
If Minerva had told him of any other story, Snape would have made one of his sarcastic remarks, or he would have scoffed as he often did when the subject of the old man's plans and deeds were mentioned. But on this matter, instead, on a man's need to be forgiven for something irreparable that he had done, on the immense pain that that man's fault had generated, he couldn't.
His curiosity piqued as to what could have caused Aberforth's action, Snape went on questioning. "But why speak now? Why leave it all this time after the end of the war?"
"I wondered the same thing, Severus, and I put it to Abe. He was leaving the room by then, and his answer was very odd. He said something about the wind… 'the wind do blow', he said."
She hadn't been able to get him to say anything more, she explained, so those had been his final disquieting words on the matter.
As if he felt the need to prove something to himself, Severus Snape was spending his teaching days in a very different way than before the end of the war. With his students, he was as demanding as in those earlier times - no difference there - but he had become even more demanding with himself. He had completely re-thought the Defence Against the Dark Arts syllabus and was coaching regular sessions in practical combat-training. It was as if he wanted to show to everyone that he had something more than a sorrowful past to be pitied and a mere duty to be fulfilled. He didn't know what such a something was, but he went on in that way, and found a sort of contentment in it.
There were days though - and that day was one of them - in which he felt all the weight of such exertion, and also a doubt about what all of that meant for his life. He saw how his dedication raised others' expectations, and he didn't like such a development.
He hadn't acknowledged, yet, that the most compelling among those expectations weren't those related to his job. He actually was afraid of them, because he didn't know what his response to them might do to the life that he had slowly rebuilt for himself, and to its precarious balance.
Once again, the wildness of the landscape outside appealed to him as a place where he could find his peace of mind. As he resumed his wandering, he was also hoping to find out whether the boy he had met some days earlier had found his destination, and if anybody else had met and helped him in a more effective way than he had done.
After Ronald Weasley had slammed the door on Hermione's home and left, he had walked for a mile without noticing anything around him, neither the calm after the ice storm nor the silence, the turmoil inside him being too great.
He was therefore even more startled than it could be expected when a voice stopped him in his tracks.
"How about a traveller telling you your fortune, Sir?"
A bitter, chocked laugh came out from the redhead as he remembered in a flash all his past adventures with Harry. "I've already heard a fair amount of prophecies and omens, thank you very much," he finally answered. But eventually he noticed the wretched appearance of the boy who had just addressed him with a question that he couldn't know to be absurd and, caught by a feeling of empathy, Ron was unable to resume his walk.
"It's very cold out here, and I don't suppose you'll find many people who want to know their destiny today. You shouldn't be outside, either."
The next words spoken by the young boy betrayed a different worry, though.
"I've been searching for a man. Lorcan Lainagan's his name." As he spoke, Ron noticed a small birthmark at the side of his neck.
"I'm sorry, I haven't heard of him," Ron answered, and he would have asked or suggested more, but the boy was already leaving.
Shaking his head, Ron wrapped himself more tightly in his cloak and tried to resume his angry train of thoughts. But the hot rage that had burned inside him till a few minutes earlier seemed to have left him and, confused, Ronald lingered in the whiteness for a while.
Albeit not inclined to frequent conversation or to small talks, Severus was ready to give voice to his worries and also to his feelings when he was in the grip of his strongest emotions, as many of his students and colleagues knew well.
However, to go around and ask for information about the strange boy he had met, and whose mental image was still haunting his thoughts, was a thing that didn't seem easy to do. Not receiving any useful information about him from his colleagues - to whom he had spoken at once, given the age of the boy - he was now at a loss as to what his next step should be.
So, rather than proceed by asking odd questions of the people he might randomly meet on his way, he resolved to visit the one person who, interested as she was in every creature and magical being in need of help, might hopefully know something.
The house was warm and comfortable, but Hermione found small solace in that.
Her row with Ron of some days earlier had probably been the last straw in a series of arguments, that had recurred one after the other since the day on which she had decided to buy the cottage for herself. She had decided to live for a certain while in the old magic village, in order to gain more practical experiences in her studies of magical beings and environments, before going on with her project of improving their state. But she hadn't even thought to ask her boyfriend for a shared choice of home. After all, he was so often abroad with the Cannons and he still considered the Burrow as his haven, didn't he?
Neither of them had really planned to settle and marry soon, actually, as they were both still too involved with their respective jobs. But she had been the only one to have been blamed, of course; it had never been the other way around, so why should the rules be different this time?
She was deeply immersed in her thoughts when a sudden knock at the door interrupted her meditation. Automatically, she opened it. A soaked boy, dressed in shabby clothes, was shaking in the chilling weather. Appalled, she grabbed his arm and pulled him inside.
"Come here by the fireplace!" she said, searching for some dry towels. In moments of distress, Hermione resorted to Muggle ways of doing things like cleaning, drying and similar activities, forgetting that a simple charm would obtain the same result more quickly.
The boy advanced, smiling.
"You'll find out that what is in your mind is true," he abruptly said, "and you know what to do, as you are set on it."
Without knowing the reason, Hermione wasn't puzzled by that strange statement. On the contrary, tears prickling in her eyes, she didn't even ask for an explanation.
"Yes, I feel it," she whispered.
Without needing to be expounded aloud, the boy's words had spoken to her heart and to her mind, affecting them profoundly. Blinking, she smiled back and went closer to the boy.
"There, let me dry your hair," she said.
Stroking his head, though, she noticed that, no matter how vigorously she tried, he remained wet. She looked pointedly at him and asked in concern, "What were you doing outside? And why did you knock at my door?"
"I'm searching for a man. He's out somewhere. But the wind do blow."
Then, as if he had realized that there was nothing else to say or to ask in that place, right when Hermione had turned to take new towels from a cupboard, he had gone.
As he drew close to Hermione Granger's house, Snape began to feel uncertain about the impulse that had led him there.
It wasn't the first time that he had visited her, nor the only one time in which he and the witch had talked about serious matters related to their respective jobs. So, at first, it had seemed good and natural to confide in her about the compelling feelings that had been troubling him since the meeting with the "poor boy", as he called him in his thoughts. Approaching her doorstep, he realized however that a sudden awareness was awakening inside him, and he wasn't sure about his actions anymore.
But the sight of the woman going out of her home in a hurry - clearly anxious and flustered - removed any further doubt. She was looking around in all directions and seemed to be searching for someone, until she saw and recognized him.
"Oh, Severus, I'm so glad you're here! Have you seen where the boy's gone?"
Minerva McGonagall had just come back after the usual leave she always took before the end of the holidays.
In the meantime, she hadn't forgotten the strange answer that Severus had given her when she had begun to tell him about the Dumbledores' reconciliation, no matter how engrossed in her tale she had been at the time. Simply, there had been no opportunity to return to the subject until that moment.
Therefore, her full attention was now for Snape.
"So, I have consulted Miss Granger, and according to her expertise and deductions, this child who is wandering alone and needy all around this area is neither a Muggle nor a wizard. She thinks he could be a Squib, though, and have some, albeit insufficient, residual magic of his own, given the many oddities that accompany his appearances," he was saying.
"And you don't know his name but, of course, you want to know if there is someone in the Book of Lists whose data correspond to his age and features," she answered. "Well, be my guest, you know where to find it. But, mind you, Severus, I'm quite intrigued by what you have told me; so, once the mystery is revealed, I expect a full account of the story and of this so fruitful partnership!" she ended, winking.
"This room has clearly affected your sensible personality," Snape retorted, making a show of sighing and looking with intention at the portrait of an apparently sleeping Dumbledore.
"I don't know what you are talking about," she answered, feigning candour. "The place didn't seem to have changed you a bit during your staying."
Then, as if realizing what she had just said, and how little a joking matter the subject was, she blushed, cleared her throat and headed toward the exit, leaving the wizard alone.
"I shouldn't have shouted like that!"
"I should have listened more carefully…"
Hermione and Ron had reacted in unison as soon as he had shown up at her door, immediately after his return from a Chudley Cannons reunion Christmas weekend in a pub at Shillingford Abbot.(*)
An old feeling of complicity made both giggle.
"We haven't always said things the way we should have, haven't we?" she went on. "I was always bossy and wordy…"
"And I was too often ready to erupt in a rage before you had finished speaking," he conceded, as if her pause had been meant right as a cue for that admission.
"But there is more than that. We didn't really ever talk to each other, Ron."
"I know, and I can see that too, now."
Silence fell between them, but it wasn't an awkward one for once. There was no need of further words to mark the end of an impossible love and to signal the acknowledgement of a future friendship, easier and more respectful than in the past.
"You know, Hermione," Ron said before leaving, "Last time, after I left you, I've had the weirdest of the encounters …"
Hurrying through the corridors of Hogwarts to reach her destination, Hermione remembered the parting words that she'd had with Ron, and that memory slowed her pace.
She had known Severus — really known him, since the years in which he had just been Professor Snape to her didn't count — since just a few months ago, but nevertheless she had found in him someone she could really confide in, whose conversation was a pleasure. Actually, if she considered those latest months with sincerity, she could see why she had been so determined in keeping to her decision to stay close to Hogwarts.
But, if she went on with such a train of thoughts, she knew also that it was a train that had to halt before meeting insuperable obstacles on its hopeful journey. A bit saddened, she shook her head, but all the same she resumed her rapid pace, in order to tell Severus that, in their search, they finally had a name.
The Book of Lists was still in Severus's chamber when Hermione joined him and revealed what she had learned from Ron. The mysterious boy had declared himself to be in search of an equally mysterious man whose name was Lorcan Lainagan, so, they immediately focussed on this information, and after turning many pages, they finally found him.
"But," Hermione said, puzzled "he attended the school a hundred and eighty years ago… even allowing for wizards' longer life-spans, he must be dead by now."
Tracing the name of the man on the page with his finger, Severus nodded.
"He's dead, Hermione, that's what the symbol next to his surname means."
Then he moved his hand in a quick gesture and the symbol changed shape in front of them, revealing everything about the man's life and death: achievements, parentage, off-springs…
Hermione, too, touched the magic paper, fascinated. She brushed his hand in doing so, but rather than withdraw, she lingered in the touch. He didn't draw back either, and looked at her intensely.
This time, she blushed and lowered her gaze.
"He had three children and one of them was a Squib; however, none of his children had sons or daughters, so the lineage was extinguished," she stated then, returning with haste to the matter at hand.
"And he seemed to have been a wealthy man, he owned a cottage near the train station and was in business, whereas that boy…"
"We need to know why he is searching for Lorcan Lainagan, Severus. And more than that, we need to know who that boy is. You'd think if he was here we'd be able to identify him from his description, with that birthmark, but we've looked for him on every page and he doesn't seem to be anywhere in the book - not among the present students, although you'd think from his age that he belonged there, and not in the past when Lainagan was here either."
After the meeting with Hermione, Severus brought the book back to Minerva's office. But, having found the room empty, he had to postpone the interview and to find another way to get answers to what he would have liked to ask to the older woman, and he therefore decided to have another stroll by the lake. He was hoping to meet the boy again and to ask him the many questions that his presence had ignited.
The storm that had raged for days had finally ended and walking was easier than on the previous occasions. As always during such activity, his thoughts wandered, and they slowly brought him back to his latest encounter with Hermione. He couldn't deny anymore that he liked her company. Her close presence had definitely improved his staying in that part of Scotland lately, and it was something that he would never have believed could happen: not with her, not to him.
He had witnessed with some annoyance, and then with concern, her involvement with the Weasley boy; involvement that, in recent times, thank Merlin, seemed to be less "sealed for eternity" than near-universal opinion had long held it to be.
Snape remembered the moment in which he had acknowledged the witch's merits for the first time, right after the end of the war; the first time in which she had shown that she cared by offering him help in spite of his temper or his rejection. But, abruptly, those remembrances and musings were interrupted by the sound made by crackling brambles.
The boy was there, and he didn't move.
Nightfall was coming, and Severus didn't want for him to disappear again in the impending obscurity.
"Who are you, and why are you searching for Lorcan Lainagan?" he asked immediately.
"It's my da," the boy whispered. And before Severus could argue about the temporal absurdity of that statement, he turned on his heels. Then, before getting too far away to be heard, he turned and stopped.
"The wind do blow," he said, and then was gone.
Even more shaken by this renewed encounter, Snape retraced his steps and, once again, he searched for warmth and sensibility where he knew he would find it.
When Hermione opened the door, she gave him the usual friendly welcome, the one to which he had become so used that he didn't even notice it. She instantly saw that he was troubled and asked him what had happened. The first time they had talked about their respective meetings with the unknown boy, she hadn't confided in him how much that encounter had affected her feelings. She hadn't been able to do so, because actually the clarity that she had sensed in her mind hadn't been related just to her relationship with Ron, and she was still amazed by the discovery of the truth about her feelings and wishes.
Now, however, sensing that Severus too had been deeply touched by the boy's words, she tried to understand and decided to disclose more about herself.
"I can see why you are so upset, Severus," she began, and while the kindness with which she pronounced his name was no different from the way she had spoken it so many times since they had become friends, still on this occasion she was especially glad and grateful for the feeling of intimacy that it implied.
"Indeed?" he asked, a clear doubt in his tone.
"I didn't tell you, but I was quite overwhelmed by the conversation that he had with me," she explained. "That's the effect that the boy has on everyone: it happened to Ron too."
At the mention of her ex-boyfriend's name Snape felt that the annoyance generated by Hermione's understanding reaction was growing; he knew it to be unreasonable, given how much he had wished and searched exactly for this, but at the moment, strangely, it didn't matter.
"I doubt you or Weasley can see what being deserted by his father could mean in a boy's life," he said, cuttingly.
The pain that she felt at those words was clearly reflected in her eyes; she didn't do anything to conceal it, this time, as she had always previously done during the early days of their tentative acquaintance. Snape couldn't know that Hermione too had had difficult moments with her parents after the end of the war, but that wasn't the reason why the witch felt wounded, as her following words made clear.
"The main effect that the boy's appearance has on everyone is not related to his search for his father. He somehow provokes the people he meets, so that they feel forced to face their deepest doubts and worries, the ones they were never able to deal with. Wouldn't you agree, Severus?"
He didn't argue this time, and his expression softened.
"What do you propose to do, then?" he finally said, and sighed.
Severus and Hermione entered the Three Broomsticks together. Glad to see that not many patrons were in, they approached Rosmerta and asked her advice about who was the best and oldest gossiper there. She pointed to a corner, near the fireplace, where a little old wizard was sitting alone, apparently dozing.
At first, he didn't even seem to notice them, but when Severus made a gesture towards the barmaid, and she brought two Firewhiskies, he suddenly perked up and nodded.
"Have your say, lad, you're clearly bursting to ask something."
Blushing, because he was usually the one who used that kind of approach with people, and therefore he wasn't accustomed to being at the receiving end, Severus started his enquiry about Mr. Lainagan's family.
Finally, they had some more data, and were able to give more substance to their guesswork.
"I know nearly everything about time-turners, Severus, and I don't think that the boy is coming from the past. There is something else in his mysterious behaviour and in his appearance, in his repetition of certain words… I think that he's a ghost, Severus, albeit of a peculiar kind," she concluded.
"Well, you may be right. It would match with the story that we heard."
Lorcan Lainagan wasn't born in Hogsmeade, they had learnt. He was Irish and, when he had finished his seventh year at Hogwarts, he went back to Ireland, where he worked as a tradesman for the magical community. He was very successful in his job, and he expanded his business even in the Muggle world where, one day, he met and married a lovely woman.
But, unfortunately, she died giving birth to a boy, who sadly revealed himself to be a Squib.
Despairing and unable to cope with his sorrow, Lorcan left the baby in an orphanage and went back to Scotland again. In Hogsmeade, he slowly rebuilt a life for himself and even started a new family while, alone and forgotten, his first child one day mysteriously disappeared, and nobody ever heard about him again.
"That was a brilliant intuition of yours, Severus, when you asked the old man if there were any stories about drowned people. Why didn't I think of it? You met the boy near the lake, and we all noticed that his clothes were wet. I even tried to dry him, but it was impossible.
"The legend the old man told us about a body that the Merpeople brought to the surface and left on the bank all those years ago, must really have referred to our boy, although it was used to warn the children about the dangers of swimming in deep water."
"At the time, nobody recognized him, though."
"It must be him: the abandoned boy who was searching for his father until something went horribly wrong," Hermione affirmed, sure by then that they must be on the right track. "He's still looking for him."
"The fact that the boy was a Squib would explain his presence in a hidden magical place that Muggles can't even see, let alone visit," Severus added, in agreement.
"And the fact that he isn't a full wizard might also explain why he is only here intermittently but when he is he appears solid, not translucent and ethereal like all the other magical ghosts," she concluded.
"And yet it doesn't explain - if he's doomed to this search — why no-one has heard of him in all the decades until now…"
"Could it be possible that now it's an anniversary? The anniversary of his death? Or maybe he wandered in many places, year after year, before arriving here, as he did in life?"
Severus looked at her expression, her lips pressed in the effort of thinking, her eyes shining with realization and feelings. He nearly missed her following words, so fascinated as he was by the lovely vision in front of him, a vision of beauty born from care.
"We must summon him, Severus, and try and give him peace and rest."
In order to call for the boy, without waiting for a chance meeting, Hermione proposed to apply a ritual that she knew had been used until recently by Muggles: an old tradition that country folk had continued to practise from generation to generation, as she had discovered during her studies.
So, all of them went there, by the lake: Ron, Aberforth, she and Severus, the people that the boy had approached, revealing something precious to each one of them while searching for help in his quest.
They had made a beautiful wreath, full of leaves and berries taken from all the most powerful and meaningful plants; then, they had added twelve little bells and a red ribbon.
It was twilight, and Hermione was holding the wreath, calling softly for the boy.
"Come here, dear boy, we are friends, come and join us!"
She repeated the same words three times, then all of them waited.
An hour passed and nothing happened, until they heard the sound of steps approaching.
The sudden appearance of Minerva made all of them release the breaths that none of them had noticed they had been holding. But their relief quickly turned into disappointment, though, and it was little improved by the Headmistress's light tone.
"I knew that you were up to something, Severus, and I remember I told you to keep me updated on this mystery," she said.
Everyone looked awkwardly at her, then, of course, the old friendship prevailed, and she was fully informed of the meaning of that gathering. As they went on talking, Hermione, who had felt a sudden shiver of cold, began to walk closer to the lake, brushing bushes and brambles out of her way, until she stopped in sad surprise.
The boy was there, so it seemed that she was the only one meant to meet him.
She began to speak softly, with the tone one would use to avoid scaring a frightened puppy.
"You gave great peace to my mind, dear boy. And I would like so much to give you rest and peace in return. I know your story, and I know about your da…"
"He took off and never wanted to see me again."
"But later, you did see him, didn't you?
The sad look of the boy became even sadder, if possible.
"I stowed away on the ferry to Liverpool, When I got here they were in a beautiful cottage near the train station, but I had walked for a long way before arriving here, and I was a tramp by then, so when I finally saw him and his family, all cosy and warm in their house all decorated for Christmas, I couldn't knock at that door."
"But you could have told him that you were there…"
"I felt shame for what I was; they wouldn't have wanted me."
"I'm sure that he would want to have you where he is now. He's surely waiting for you."
"I can't go there… I saw the trees behind the station and I ran in through the gate there to hide myself, and down the path, but it was too steep and the water swollen by the storm. When I got to the bottom and saw the water almost under my feet I was going too fast, I couldn't pull up in time, and then I didn't know how to stay afloat…"
"Listen. Your being amongst us, your searching, has affected us here; people have found the courage to say what they weren't able to say before, and now… now it's your turn. We want to deliver you to peace, to rest, to where you belong. We can help you, if you want it."
As she was saying those last words, she turned and looked for her companions, trying to see if they had followed her.
But actually there was no need to wait for them, she realized.
The boy smiled a true smile, then nodded kindly as slowly his body began to blur and fade.
"Wait! What's your name?" she cried.
"Liam. Liam Lainagan," he answered, and in doing so, he became translucent and disappeared; deeply moved, Hermione knew that it was the last time in which he would be seen on earth.
She turned on her heels, a bit shaken but ready to recount the event to her friends, planning to search for a stone or any other suitable symbol nearby - if there wasn't already an unknown grave close to the place - and to put Liam's name on it, as a way to give him a sort of better burial.
Severus had noticed when Hermione had left and he had followed her, leaving the others waiting for the boy to manifest himself where they had called him. So, he had witnessed the encounter, watching it from a safe distance, afraid that he might interrupt or alter the delicate balance of the moment.
When Liam had gone, however, he knew without a doubt that, right at that moment, what he wanted most was to be with Hermione; and he hoped he had finally found the courage of which she had spoken, the courage to involve himself and to speak clearly.
"He's gone," she said, seeing Severus and drawing near him as if in need of warmth and comfort.
"I did. Liam accepted that it was his time to go, and his was a beautiful leave-taking, for which the time was ripe."
"We did it together, Severus. And you were the first person Liam approached."
They went on walking in silence for a little while, but then he stopped quite abruptly.
"You know, if you hadn't come back with the Healers to the Shrieking Shack, I probably would have ended like him: a corpse without mourners and a soul without peace, Hermione," he began. She shivered and looked fondly at him for a long moment.
"Yes, you had done all that had been asked of you, and still, even then, if you had died you wouldn't have found real peace, because you hadn't had a moment of it, on earth."
"You made it possible, however, so it seems that you have this capacity to bring people to peace…"
He put his hand on her shoulder, and she stood in front of him, waiting.
"My life didn't end that night, Hermione," he whispered, "but sometimes I feel as if it is ending now, day after day; a slow ending, if I don't choose…" He paused, swallowed and then resumed what he had been saying with growing intensity. "You brought me back to life, and then you gave a meaning to it… I wonder if it's time for us to share that life."
It was impossible to misunderstand the meaning of his words, and yet Hermione needed to be certain: she had been wrong so many times, assuming others' feelings!
She held his gaze; her eyes were shining but her lips were parted, and she drew in a quick, nervous breath.
"If you don't want this, just say so," he added quietly, as if he needed all of his strength to say those words and it couldn't be wasted on the effort of louder speech.
She smiled then, and raised her head to meet him. He drew her closer, and without need of further words, they kissed, losing themselves in their embrace.
"The wind has calmed," Minerva said as the couple joined the others, and everyone saw in Hermione and Severus's eyes that the deed had been accomplished.
"Liam is at peace, at last," was Hermione's reply. "And, yes, it seems that there is no more need for him, for anybody, to hear the call of the wind."
When Hermione, still holding Snape's hand, continued with her story, everyone knew that the boy hadn't been the only one who had found his destination on that night.
And all was well.
(*) Shillingford Abbot is a village near Chudleigh in Devon, about ten miles from the likely location of Ottery St Catchpole.