Chapter 24: Sleeping cats.

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OMG I AM SO AWFUL. I completely understand how I broke a promise and I should be punished (but not too severely?). I suffered a broken heart to deal with before I left and didn't touch my computer to finish the story. Thinking the 6th would inspire me to write again I waited until reading it and... sobs into hands. I'm thinking of writing the whole seventh year myself to last me until the real book comes out and making the best of a bad situation.

But anyway, back to this story, which, instead of having two chapters to go, I decided to squash them into one to make up for it and now my work is complete!

O

Hermione crawled out of bed, to the sound of a hassled meow of a cat being disturbed. Leaving the warm sheets for the chill of the morning air, she flung open the arched window. Her first morning back and she found herself dreading her first breakfast at the staff table.

She lugged herself into the shower, dried her hair in curls, sighed as she slipped into her robes and made a mental note to never let her eyes leave her plate, come hell or high water.

She swept down the marble staircase, hand on the banister and new plum robes dragging. Memories threatened her. She refused to let them swamp her.

At the table she mentally cursed her heart nonstop as she resisted the desire to glance at Severus, whose gaze she could feel avidly pinning her down, as well as many faces in the hall. She even recognized some of them. That would have been unbearable enough without the half the staff casting her sidelong looks as if they were trying to figure out what she was thinking.

She hung her head and played with her food, not really feeling like eating.

Whispers spread across the hall in hushed uneven waves and she pretended to eat.

She left before anyone else, having forced down enough coffee to keep her running for a good while.

Once she was out of earshot of the Great Hall she hid her face in her hands then ran her fingers through her hair to claw the feeling out of her. Her broken heart betrayed her. A wound so old could still be reopened.

With a frustrated sigh she raised her head and her brown eyes fell upon something in the hallway ahead. Crookshanks and a black cat (and, ain't life a bitch, that cat seemed awfully familiar). Her gaze flickered over the two cats. Both being of stubborn nature, the idea of Decimus and Crookshanks getting along seemed farfetched enough but to actually both be curled up, basking under a sunbeam together, against the wall... And yet there they were perfectly comfortable as though they had always been friends.

Taking tentative steps towards the two, Decimus raised his head to acknowledge her and gave her one good look-over with his sharp eyes before laying his head back down to return to dreams.

Something brushed Hermione's cheek, causing her to flinch, when she realized it was a tear and that her eyes were brimming with them.

She blinked them out harshly.

With determination to read more than her crowded head could handle, she turned and made for her oldest refuge: the library.

O

"And, Miss Pumblechook, pray tell, what do you call this?" Severus hissed, his voice a deathly quiet whisper that held the whole class mesmerized. All eyes in the dungeon classroom fell on an unfortunate fifth year who was shrinking in her seat, unable to look into the black eyes that burned with a fire today that awed the class.

The room seemed cold, even for summer and almost all students had received death glares, even the Slytherins, to everyone's horror.

He exhaled silently, looking around the whole room. Everyone shrank under his poisonous black eyes.

"It seems that four years in this classroom have done nothing to improve your knowledge of potions even in the slightest..." he breathed with contempt and swirled round and swept back up to his desk, black cloak following behind him. The students stared as he sank derisively into his chair and returned their stares all malevolently.

No one dared speak, although they shared confirming glances, each silently verifying the rumors.

Miss Pumblechook, who was a hard working student, always aiming to please, took his comments all too personally and was reduced to tears. Her neighbor leaned over to comfort her but she shoved her stool back and ran from the classroom leaving her friends to collect her stuff for her.

Pretending nothing had happened, he proceeded to continue in his criticisms and icy threats.

The class morale when they left the room was at an all time low as they slugged out through the wooden door under Severus' malicious glare.

His endeavors had done little to lighten his mood. All he could see was her face behind his closed lids.

A vicious headache threatened to overwhelm him and he grudgingly decided that he needed to spill his thoughts to Dumbledore completely, openly hoping that this would cause them to leave.

Touching the wood of his desk thoughtfully, he gathered himself and stretched to his full height, a glazed and lost look in his black eyes as he walked around his desk in the torchlight and slipped out of his classroom. He felt dead. Usually he took in everything he saw with extreme alertness. But now, more than ever, he felt like he was walking through a dream.

It is said that the eyes are a gateway into the soul. He was quite willing to accept the idea that his soul had fled from his eyes and retracted into a small niche deep within him.

Startled out of his reverie by almost stumbling over his own cat (another painful stab), he blinked and looked down. Decimus had curled himself around Severus' robes while he had been walking (for lack of a better word – he hardly strode when he was feeling this deflated). He was pursuing Severus' gaze with his slit emerald jewels.

Severus said nothing and watched as the cat moved away, disheartened. He was followed by an orange cat, which he could not understand missing, as, in the gloom, he stood out well. He knew the cat to be Hermione's.

Looking about him, making an effort to grasp his whereabouts, he realized the cats were heading into the library. Sure enough, the library corridor came into light: the stone walls and high windows, the paintings and suits of armor.

He cursed himself and his heart for its foolishness as he followed the cats into the library on a whim.

As soon as he had entered the library he stopped. The sight of the books and the tingling sensation of all the knowledge that was trapped in these walls granted him some of his acute awareness back.

He followed the orange cat's tail as it whipped around a shelf and stealthily kept his distance until they entered the area near the back with tables and chairs for working at. Severus hung back and watched as the two cats, an odd pairing, tip-toed over to a table laden with books that seemed to threaten to spill over the edge.

The few other students in the room (all NEWT students with free periods) were casting sidelong glances at the table, feigning indifference.

There, bent so low over her book her nose almost brushed the words, Hermione sat. She didn't appear to be reading at all, much rather lost in her own whirlwind of thoughts, though trying to seem as if interested in the contents of her book.

Decimus leapt up onto the table gracefully, shadowed by Crookshanks. Both cats chose open books and curled up back to back for extra warmth, on her table.

As he watched her from the end of a bookshelf, the raging torment in him seemed put out, suddenly flattened by the sight of her and all he knew were love and sadness for knowledge of her hating him.

Without thinking things through, he stepped out into open view and approached Hermione silently from the rear, not even causing a ripple in the air to sense him by.

"Hermione, please..." Severus implored in a deathly quiet voice that none other than she would hear. Hermione jerked straight up in her seat and he saw her shiver in slight.

He moved to stand over the seat next to her on the round table. Hermione's cinnamon eyes were wide with sleepy surprise and confusion and he saw her damp cheeks glistened under the soft light. She had been silently crying. If Madam Pince had known it was over one of her books, she would have had a fit.

Pretending to only just realize who it was she returned to staring blankly at her book and tried to sound both firm and nonchalant but only sounding shaky when she mumbled "Go away."

Severus gently retrieved the book from under her nose to give her no excuses for evasion.

"You can't avoid me forever."

His tone was soft and coaxing and he felt eyes turn towards him in shock from nearby tables.

"You can't possibly apologize enough to make me ever forgive you..." it made something sink in his stomach although he knew it was a fair statement.

"I know," he said quietly with deep regret lining his tone, "but I still love you," he added firmly, watching her closely, unblinking, "and I will do anything you ask of me to ease the pain."

Hermione's lip seemed to quiver as though it was all too much for her to handle. She reached for the book Severus had moved down the table and slammed it shut, stuffing it into her bag.

"Then leave me alone!" he voice an octave higher. She grabbed random books and started shoving them all hurriedly into her sling-bag. Severus watched remorsefully, feeling the moment of hope flicker and die but trying not to let anything show in his face other than the slightest of suggestions he was disappointed.

She flung her bag over her shoulder, her chair made a loud screech as she stood and, as an afterthought, perhaps, or just because she wasn't thinking straight, she caught Crookshanks round the middle to take him with her.

The cat growled his lack of consent and dugs his claws into the open pages beneath him.

Hermione dropped him as though he had burned her. She collapsed into her chair, bursting into tears or frustration, anger, confusion and pain.

In a final stand for a remaining shred of dignity, she tried to hide her tears behind her hands.

Severus stepped forward and gripped her wrists gently with his pale long fingers. Hermione didn't shake him off, but rather froze slightly.

Carefully, and especially gently, he removed her hands from her face. Her eyes were bloodshot from the hot tears strewn over her cheeks but she had stopped crying and was watching his every move closely.

She felt a guilty pleasure in looking into his eyes. They still mesmerized her, though they were the cause of her nightmares.

There were several long moments where nothing happened: Severus kneeling on the floor before her, still holding her wrists, their eyes locked, their faces close and completely unaware of the many held breaths around the room.

Abruptly he leaned forward and pressed his lips against hers.

Hermione felt an explosion of feelings inside her: shockwaves of relief and calmness. When he pulled away, she gasped for air which filled her lungs mercifully. Her eyes dropped to the carpet.

He straightened to stare at her acutely.

The whole library was in awe at what had just happened. Not one mouth remained closed. But no one dared breathe too loudly for fear of interrupting the scene.

"Do you want me to leave you still?" he asked calmly and quietly.

Hermione raised her gaze to rest on him. Although his features remained deceptively calm, she could tell there was a mixed amount of hope and fear behind his eyes and she felt her throat clog at the sight.

She had to look to her books to regain her speech.

"Yes, I want you to leave," she mumbled, not looking him in the eye. Severus' blood froze and something sank inside him. She could sense him shrink and he relinquished her wrists, preparing to leave.

He was just about to raise himself up again, suffering a returned dreaminess to his sight, when Hermione was the one to catch him by the wrist. He was rooted in place and the rest of the room held their breath.

Hermione turned her face back to his, eyes level.

"But don't..." she managed to choke out. Severus felt flooded with warmth as he stood and helped Hermione to stand too. The students saw him smile without restraint or malice for the first time in their lives and once they were both standing, Hermione threw her arms around him in a tight embrace. "I missed you so much..." she sobbed, only this time with pure happiness.

The sensation of having her in his arms, pressed against him once more made all his fears and exhaustions melt away under her affection.

The others in the library (even Madam Pince, who could be seen behind a bookshelf, peering out) erupted into cheers abruptly, startling Hermione and Severus.

They looked around the room in astonishment, then at each other and seemed to read each other's mind.

Placing a firm arm around her shoulders, he led her away from the irritating crowd of students, who seemed to be finding their lives highly entertaining. Hermione was leaning into him as they walked away, tears still crawling down her face, a mixture of relief and confusion at her own actions. But, as a consolation for herself, she took in a deep breath of his scent.

O

"I only needed you to heal me the whole time," Hermione purred and planted a small kiss on the underside of his jaw.

She was curled in his arms in his study, a book in her hand that, quite unlike Hermione, she wasn't paying much attention to. Severus was keeping up the same façade with a closed book at his side.

Hermione had returned much to her former self, although one might even see an improvement in her happiness. Even Severus' classes were tittering to themselves about how the Potions Master was less unbearable than he used to be.

"I think this was how Dumbledore wanted it..." Severus considered. The headmaster had somehow managed to evade the two of them at every attempt they made at questioning them, but seemed always more than happy to be there to congratulate. "It fits in with his crazy notions about love and interference... barmy old codger... I think he could have saved us both a lot of pain."

"You never know," Hermione reasoned into his neck, "it might have been fated to happen that way, saving the lives of those in the house with me..." Hermione speculated the possibilities then stated stubbornly "I'm still not going to talk to him for a whole year though."

Severus just smiled and stroked her hair, too contented to think of unpleasant memories now that his life had become perfect. He knew every moment was one worth savoring because when life is perfect, it's certain not to last.

Hermione seemed to suddenly shift in posture at this thought and he regretted his feelings as though he had reckoned too soon.

She gazed up at him with an expectant look.

"You promised to tell me about Stella one day," it was one of Dumbledore's style of question, disguised as a statement. Severus eased.

"I'm sure you would have liked her, and she you... She was there for me when my mother was murdered by my own father, and when he disowned me... but of more importance, the night where..." he swallowed, trying to find the right words, "everything went wrong... Lucius Malfoy revealed the true sinister nature of her death... She was poisoned for her lack of support for the Dark Side."

Hermione gasped. Two losses in one night? She gave him a squeeze and kissed the skin of his neck, which made him shiver. The touch was more than welcomed... but so alien, just the same.

There was a long comfortable silence where they simply sat in each other's arms and Hermione sighed in contentment.

Breaking the hush, she sat up, her face close to his.

"Say you love me."

"I love you."

O

omg...

THE END!

It's finished!

blink blink

it's my first FINISHED piece over 200 pages long (just two pages short of three hundred but I wasn't going to drag it on to reach that mark).