Disclaimer: I own nothing.
A/N: The following is an AU story; it retains most of the events in canon, though as it is a distant relation of the Marriage Law genre, it does move away from it at some points. Enjoy.
The Lilac Tree
We made plans to kiss the sun at night
Hopeless dreamers, hopeless types
One was turning, one was standing still
I won't forget what was promised here.
Birds of Tokyo
Two years, eleven months and thirteen days
The rain fell steadily onto the roof, the splattering sounds echoing through the ward as though the roof was tin and not old slate. In a way, it was like Spinner's End, right down to the fluorescent lights. Strange, really; a Magical hospital adorned with Muggle lighting. The nurses always said that candles could never get the rooms as bright as they needed to be.
Severus Snape often wished that there hadn't been a member of the staff at some point in time that'd realised such an irritating fact. It made the shadows under his eyes look more pronounced, and the witch on duty at the Healer's station always smiled in that heavy, pitying way - the way where the lower lip is pressed down so it purses and groans under the weight of emotions that someone other himself (and perhaps the woman in the room across the hall) had no right to feel.
He strode down the hallway, dragon hide boots making no sound against the constant thudding of the rain. Sans robes, he barely seemed to make an impression on the whitewashed walls but he took comfort in the stern, buttoned frock coat. It wouldn't do to billow his way down the corridors here at St. Mungo's when one never really knew what reaction a patient could have considering he had taught many of them. Thus, the coat stayed and the robes were a shrunken piece of black wool in the right pocket of his trousers.
"Good morning, Professor," Healer Brown said with her customary grimace when he stopped at the station. Bar the two days that Ms. Brown had off each week, they'd repeated the exact same words for nigh on three years, give or take a few unpleasantries. The only main difference was when she was Miss Brown, then Mrs Weasley, then Ms. Brown again. He could hardly keep track, but far be it from Snape to care much about the revolving door that was her last name when his own title had caused her so much grief. She'd stuck with Professor, in the end, not that he was hers anymore.
"Ms. Brown." He tipped his head. "How...?"
The Janus Thickney ward always seemed to rob him of speech.
"Oh she's fine," Lavender (it was easier to name the blonde by her first name in his mind; it wasn't often that someone named after flora brought bad news after all) said with a small smile that more genuine now, the way it often was when she spoke of her patient. "No changes over night. All of her vitals are consistent with what we expect for her, and she's all set to participate in the upcoming trial."
"Ah. Longbottom's, I presume?"
"The very same. You must have heard a bit about it, although Neville's always been the private type when his parents are involved, so perhaps not. It's due to start in a week, providing there's no change in her status between now and then."
"Of course." He had, in fact, been consulted on the Potions side of things, but he wasn't particularly willing to speak about that. Lavender was a hopeful, optimistic witch; he found that rather painful at times. Truth be told, Neville Longbottom's research had left him privately hopeful. He'd never admit it, because if it failed as so many others had (including some of his own), it would just be another notch in the board of things that had gone wrong.
"Now," Lavender stood from where she had been sitting behind the desk, tapping away at something that looked like a Muggle computer but upon closer inspection was more like a box with holographic images inside. Straightening her lilac robes (each Healer wore the colour that calmed the patient the most - Severus had been surprised that lilac worked best, but then again, what did he really know anyway?) she pushed a clipboard across the chest height wall surrounding the station. "New forms to sign this week," she said softly, her lower lip shaking for just a second before it was drawn resolutely underneath her two front teeth.
"And these are?" He already suspected, but it didn't hurt to bring another into his misery.
"We're coming up to three years, sir. It's simply a renewal of, well, everything really. Just crossing the T's and dotting the I's to say that you're still the primary contact, still the one to sign off on changes to her care or any major trials to be participated in, new medicines and such. The costs are still taken care of by the Ministry due to the…" Here, she cleared her throat then continued on, "…due to the circumstances of the reasons for hospitalisation. Just the same as last year, although the form for the Longbottom trial is at the… bottom." She shrugged when his lip twitched with amusement.
"I'll sign these inside," Severus replied, tucking the clipboard under his arm. "Her mood?"
"Ah," Lavender looked past his shoulder to the door to the room. "I should think it'll be somewhat normal at first, she's been rather chipper this morning. Those teas her mother sent over with you last week have worked a bit of magic – pardon the pun – and she's looking forward to your visit."
"Well, all of her visitors. You're included, sir," Lavender said firmly. "No matter what anyone else says. You are, and she knows it."
"Right." He rolled his shoulders and nodded. "Thank you, Ms. Brown."
Without another word, Severus crossed the hall and stood in front of the white door with a lilac handle. The shutters on the windows of either side were closed, though he knew that they would've been open until the moment he began to walk towards them. He rested his forehead on the door, breathing in and listening for any noises coming from inside. Upon hearing nothing, he drew in a deep breath and turned the handle.
"Oh! Good morning, Professor Snape!" Hermione was sitting at her white provincial style desk (he'd brought it in as soon as she had begun to emerge from the induced coma following the final Battle) in front of the window. There were books stacked on it for research – he picked out ones each week that suited whatever she claimed to have an interest in at the time. The rest of the room was like Lavender described – 'chipper' – with sunlight streaming in over the bed in the middle of the room with a plump lilac quilt, white bedside tables and bunches of yellow carnations in plastic vases on each table. There was a fireplace, though it was not connected to the Floo network. It was as homely as possible, for the woman who had no home at all.
She stood and tugged nervously on the end of her braid, and then pulled down the hem of her green Weasley jumper. It swamped her – she was too thin, and it came down to her denim covered thighs – though Severus snorted an inappropriate laugh when he saw that the front was embroidered with a serpent and bookcase. Bloody Molly.
"How are you this morning, Miss Granger?" he asked, setting the clipboard down on the small two-person couch beside the bed. He fumbled in his pockets then produced a Muggle biro.
"Oh, good, good, of course. Very good this morning, sir," she said eagerly, nodding her head up and down. "I've actually already had a visit from Mum. She brought me this tea, you see?" Hermione waved him over, and he smiled and advanced to the other side of the room. She held a steaming cup under his nose; he sniffed, and took the time to look at her. Still lovely, though the environment made it hard; her eyes were as beautiful as ever, and her hair was frizzier thanks to the humidity in the room from the rain. He always liked it when it ran wild like it was alive; it suited her. There were deep shadows under her eyes.
"It smells delightful," he said. "Can you tell me the ingredients?"
"Roses and hibiscus, sir!"
"As I thought. And how is your mother today? I've not had the chance to speak with her since last week."
Helen was in Australia. Severus resisted the urge to scowl; the woman was as driven as her daughter had once been. He'd had to open the Floo in his quarters at Hogwarts to allow her access, and then of course establish a connection in her own home. The red tape had been a nightmare, though let it not be said that he did not work night and day to make sure that the woman was always informed of every one of his visits to Hermione. He had spoken to her only the evening before, not that he planned to reveal the details of those conversations to the young witch in front of him, because Helen had last been able to visit a month before and their recent argument on that very subject was not suitable for fragile ears.
Hermione's face fell. Immediately he took the cup and set it down on the desk, and then took her elbow to guide her into the chair and knelt in front of her.
"I don't know, sir," she said in a small voice. "I was so sure that I saw her… she told me you'd be coming, see… and here you are, but I can't remember what she said at all. I'm sure that she did come, though… I'm sure that I told her of the latest research you have me doing. She was ever so proud when I told her of my apprenticeship. I'm going to have my certificate soon, aren't I? Oh but I can't…I have to finish my seventh year first, sir. I know how much you need my help, though." Her eyes darted over the features of his face. "You look well, sir. Much better than when I saw you last. Gosh, you looked like a stick insect! To think that it was only yesterday. I can't believe the Headmaster was killed only yesterday. Oh – I shouldn't mention it, should I? It's a bit of a funny subject with you, isn't it? Fair enough. We're in hiding, aren't we? Did you save me from the Death Eaters that came to the castle? How very brave of you. Thank you."
"It's all right, Miss Granger," he soothed her, ignoring the blinding white pain that twisted in his stomach on bad mornings such as these.
"Yes, of course it is!" Hermione said, suddenly smiling again and throwing him off guard. "Oh! What a surprise - Professor Snape! How lovely to see you. I've been doing research for you, you know."
"Good morning, Miss Granger," Severus repeated. She didn't notice the duller tone in his voice. Before she could continue, he bid her to stand and steered her over to the couch. When she was seated, he took a stack of shrunken books out of his pockets and enlarged them with a flick of his wrist. "For you."
"Oh! How positively wonderful! What am I researching this week, sir?"
"I'm glad you asked. It's a very complicated subject." He drank in the sight of her nodding eagerly, the light in her eyes a faint hint of what it used to be but subtly there all the same. "Do you have the time to go through it all first?"
"Yes, yes! I always have time for you, sir. It's such an honour. Do go on."
He spent a good thirty minutes talking her through the theme for this week: studying medieval texts in foreign languages. It was a genuine part of training for a prospective apprentice, though Hermione wasn't his apprentice at all. She never had been. But she was enthusiastic and had already begun sounding out the Arabic vowels. He knew from experience that she would have the entire alphabet memorised in a day.
When she was settled with the texts and practice examination questions (he'd drawn them up in the few minutes before he left the castle this morning), Severus began to fill out the forms.
"Yes." He drew out the word. "Third years."
"My condolences, Professor," she said cheekily. "May I see?"
He covered the page with his arm. "Miss Granger, it would be an insult to your intellect to waste it on such mediocre things. Do continue with your research."
"Right you are, sir."
Each morning was spent waiting for a particular moment. It was one of the main reasons why he visited every day without fail unless he was kept away. Sometimes it came right at the beginning of the hour, other times at the middle. The hardest was when it came at the end; for a lifetime of spying, Severus still found it difficult to keep the positivity going. A pessimist by nature (and nurture), he was probably the worst person for this job. He cursed inwardly when he remembered it was Thursday, and so there would be another visitor soon after him.
All of a sudden, a soft intake of breath alerted him to Hermione's change of state. His head snapped up and he discarded the clipboard, moving again to kneel in front of where she was now half folded over herself. The tears were already falling onto her knees.
"Hermione," he said gently, wincing as he raised a tentative hand and cupped her cheek. She flinched. "I apologise." He removed his hand.
She hiccoughed and sniffed before she said, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, Prof-Severus… oh god, I've ruined it all haven't I…"
"No, no, sweetheart, you haven't ruined anything. It'll be all right." He sighed when her eyes looked bright again; it felt like he lived for this snippet of awareness. "There's another trial in a week. One more week, and we'll have some new medicine to try. It'll be all right."
"You always call me sweetheart," she said shyly. "And we haven't even… We've never…"
"It doesn't matter. I'll always take care of you, Hermione. Trust that I will at least do that."
"I don't want you to!" she cried. "This whole thing – we didn't have a choice in the first place, and now you're stuck with me! Leave me here, Severus. Go and live your life!"
"I had a choice. I was asked and I agreed. Do you think I could ever live with myself if I left you here? I couldn't!"
"How long has it been?" she whispered, reaching out to take his hands. "God, all I remember is her wand!"
"She's gone," he said firmly, running his thumbs over her knuckles, willing her to believe him. "Molly got her. She'll never hurt you again."
"I live here, remember." She gestured to the rest of the room with her chin. "No one can hurt me. No one can even get in if they're not supposed to. My own little cell."
He squeezed her hands. "It's to-"
"To keep me safe. I know. How long has it been?"
"Three years." Severus' voice sounded strangely light, to his ears. He often wondered how he even managed to keep it all up. This was something that was not his fault (despite the first alcohol fueled rages early on, he recognised that it was not his wand that had turned Hermione into a shell of the woman she had been) and there was no one that didn't expect him to stop his daily visits, but still he returned again and again.
She gave a tiny wail. "Three years! Oh god I've wasted three years. Severus, I had plans! You had plans! I know we didn't really make any together but ohgodohgodohgod three years down the drain, gone, gone-"
"I had no plans, Hermione – you of all people should know that. I will take care of you, however long it takes," he said flatly. "Enough now."
"Just tell me one thing," she demanded. He wished that the 'one thing' had changed, but it never did. "Is Voldemort dead?"
"And… and… who…?"
And so the litany of the dead began. There was no escaping it. Hermione asked every visitor she had. It didn't make it any easier.
When her cries subsided and he'd cleaned her face with a damp cloth, she bent forward to rest her cheek against his heart. He was still at first; touch was uncommon to them, but her upper body was warm and he was always so damn cold. She'd do this with whoever was here. It doesn't matter that it's me. Slowly, Severus let his arms encircle her until she was fastened within his hesitant hold. His index fingers traced short lines down her spine. Ten solid minutes passed; it was enough to make him ponder just what he was missing by Fate ripping her away from him before they could have even begun. That thought was quickly banished – it served no purpose other than to sadden. He focused on the uncomfortable feeling of kneeling on the hard floor instead.
He knew the moment her comprehension ended. She went from soft and pliant, sniffling and quiet, to rigid. In an instant, she pushed herself back to an arm's length distance. "What are you doing?" she hissed, curling her lip. "I appreciate your concern, Professor, but I do not require a nursemaid! There is no need to coddle me like a first year, like there's something wrong with me. Well, there isn't! If I wanted a cuddle I'd go and find Ron – for all of his faults, at least he's spoken more than two kind words to me! You haven't had anything nice to say to me since I came to Hogwarts. Kindly keep your hands to yourself."
It was his hint to leave. "Of course, Miss Granger. Forgive me."
He took the clipboard on the way out and dodged the book that flew and hit the wall beside the door.
"She did well," he remarked to Lavender as he stopped at the station on his way out. "Twelve minutes of comprehension."
The fair headed Healer smiled widely and bent to record his observation. "It was ten yesterday, nine last week. And at least three times a day for the last fortnight. It's very slow going, but there is a marked improvement from when she first came in."
"Anything would be an improvement to that," he said dryly, arching an eyebrow. Lavender shrugged.
"This is a ward for permanent residents, Professor. I'd say that having moments of comprehension after being catatonic initially is a drastic change. It's not something that's normal for around here."
Chastened, he bowed his head. "I know, Ms. Brown. I do realise that."
Lavender sucked in a breath and patted his arm, ignoring his affronted scowl. "If anyone realised it at all, it'd be you, sir. Don't mind me. You're the only one who comes for her daily – still, after all this time – and I know it's bound to take its toll. She does appreciate it, you know."
He gave a noncommittal hum, and then frowned at the large group of red haired visitors that had just entered the main doors of the ward. Their subdued voices would become detectable soon, and he did not wish to ruin his day any further by hearing their comments at his presence.
"My cue," he muttered, waving away Lavender's concerned expression.
"Oh, don't pay them any attention, sir. You, out of all people, have the right to be here. Don't listen to anything those idiots say. Molly understands; the rest can just sod off!"
"Touchy, Ms. Brown?" he drawled, and she rolled her eyes.
"Only the justifiable kind! I was married under that ridiculous Law too, remember?" She brandished her bare left hand and tilted her head towards the youngest boy who was already sending a disgusted look their way. "I got out at least. But when one of the trials is successful, and it will be, you and Hermione can sit down and work it all out. Bugger what anyone else has to say. You're in it together, after all."
"Indeed." Severus turned on his heel and walked in the opposite direction of the approaching group of Weasleys, aiming to be as far away as possible before the inevitable happened. As usual, he wasn't quite fast enough and the words of the always eager-to-speak young man reached his ears despite his efforts.
"I don't even understand why that git even comes here! He's got no right to leach all over her like he does! It's disgusting."
"Oh shut up Ron," his older brother, Percy – having gained some balls and mental faculties since the war – hissed. "She's his wife! He's got more of a right to her than you. And he visits every day. Give it a rest."
Severus quickened his pace and pushed through the doors, not wanting to hear any more.