Chapter Ten: Shadows
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I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me
-- Evelyn Waugh
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The shadows lengthened towards evening, and instead of the scene he had fallen asleep to—his sitting room well-lit by a charmed window in the late afternoon—he woke to the dance of shadows on the walls and to the sensation of his arm going to sleep under a soft burden.
His wife had decided to join him on the cramped sitting room sofa; her eyes were shut and her hair was tickling his nose, and her head was pillowed on his arm and her own arms were wound about his torso. He looked at their legs entangled and felt something ballooning in his chest.
A length wood in the fire cracked in two as it was consumed, and Hermione started awake, nearly falling off the sofa; he caught her and she smiled sheepishly at him.
"Did I disturb you?" she said. "I wanted to take a nap when I got home, but you weren't there and I couldn't sleep." She lifted her head from his arm, allowing the blood to return gushing to his fingers, and propped herself up on her own elbow.
He lifted a hand to smooth the hair from her forehead and thought of the way she used the word home.
"No, you didn't wake me," he said. "We've both slept a little late, haven't we."
"And missed dinner too," she replied cheerfully. Surprising them both immensely, she moved and swung herself up until she was lying on her stomach on top of him, legs between his own and with her chin pillowed on her crossed arms, which were flush with his chest. His heartbeat began to speed up as the two of them recovered from the initial surprise of being in a position so unfamiliar.
"I have a suggestion," she said, and the mischief in her smile should have sent alarm bells ringing in his head.
Anything. "What might that be?" He lifted his hand again to push her hair away; it was wild from their nap and he felt like a lioness' prey, with the lioness herself entrapping him with her small weight and large mane.
"It's Saturday, so you've got no classes tomorrow."
"And it is rather late, and I'm in no mood for the kitchens' heavy fare."
"And you have been growing much stronger…"
"I propose that we go out for dinner," she said, and an arm snaked out from between their bodies to his face, where her thumb began to stroke his lower lip.
"Say yes or I shall make your mouth say it myself."
This giddy banter—the humor and the comfortableness between them—had come in bits and snatches in the previous weeks but was at its pinnacle now, and he was blown away by the unfamiliar but intoxicating quality of it. He felt young and exuberant, and allowed himself for the moment to forget about everything that had ever happened between them that suggested that they were anything than this pair of a husband and a wife.
He could not, however, forget that there was danger in the outside world. "And what of security?" he said against her thumb.
"Glamours," she said. "Charms."
"Naples." He moved to protest but she bore down on him until their foreheads touched and her hands were on either side of his head. "I don't mean your house, just the surrounding locale. I always wanted to see it at night. And it's not so dangerous in Italy as it is here."
He felt himself losing this mild battle—the convenience of taking a dinner in the kitchens or just taking her off to bed and having no dinner at all seemed less attractive than the tiny adventure she had planned—and he was surprised to discover that he did not mind losing.
"Transport?" he whispered, because her face was very close. He was surrounded by the curtain of her hair, and forgot to think about why she called the house his house while calling the dungeons their home.
"Floo," she said. "I know your house is keyed to the floo in the bedroom."
He smiled crookedly. He had been doing that more often in the past weeks. He had been keeping that information from her so that she would not visit the house by herself; the floo connection was not one that the government knew existed, for the ministry did not now allow floo connections to outside of Britain unless it was by special permit, but Dumbledore had seen to it that Snape could easily floo to refuge during his time as a spy to use the Naples house as a bolt-hole.
It was certainly the Headmaster who had told her. At the moment he could not seem to care, and propped himself up on an elbow.
"You seem to have thought of everything. It seems I have no option but to say yes."
She gave a delighted giggle—he forgave her for it—and said, "Truly?" She brushed her hand against his cheek. "Speak'st thou in sober meanings?"
Deciding that her closeness was getting more and more dangerous, he sat up and dislodged her gently until she fell into a giggling pile beside him. "By my life, I do," he said, and her laughter carried him all the way to the bathroom as he prepared to leave.
Half an hour later, they stood before the fireplace, she with black hair and he with brown, both with more subtle glamours that would fade in three hours. They stepped into the floo, leaving seconds before the headmaster burst into the sitting room to find nobody there.
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More than half an hour later their food had arrived and they were ensconced in a warm booth in a restaurant near the Golfo di Napoli. Instead of Apparating, they had bicycled there with transfigured bikes, racing each other over roads and slopes, and stopping briefly to look at the sky over the gulf. Hermione extracted a promise from him that they would look at the stars after dinner, when their bellies were full, and Snape could not bring himself to say no despite the late hour.
Now they were here and talking softly over seafood. The Hogwarts elves were very good at satisfying the hunger pangs of the young and active, but not sufficiently skillful in preparing food for the more discriminating palate. Snape was not sure that he had one of those, but he was certain that this meal was the most satisfying that he had had in a very long time—or was it not the food but the company?
He peered over his pasta at his wife, who was chatting comfortably with the waiter as she asked about the nighttime scenery, the available desserts, and life in Naples in general, all the while using English with but a smattering of Italian.
He was still unsure what made him say yes to her whimsical suggestion of having dinner in another country, but it seemed to make her happy and for the moment he shared her feelings. Why shouldn't he engage in a little wining and dining with his lawfully wedded wife, who no longer seemed to despise the very sight of his face and who was trying to make herself agreeable to him? Why not, when he in his inadequacy seemed for the moment to satisfy her?
He looked at her—at her seafoam green dress, at slope of nose and pout of lip, at the hair he had asked her not to tame—and chanced a glance at the necklace around her neck. He almost winced at the reminder of things unpleasant, when the waiter departed and he allowed himself to force such recollections to the back of his mind. They were quickly succeeded by an unfamiliar sensation that felt much like… hope.
They talked about school, a project that Hermione and Neville Longbottom were undertaking for Pomona Sprout and, amazingly enough, the future. He had thought they would avoid it tonight, when things were safe and easy, but Hermione broached the subject of university as they had several months ago. She was undecided as to which majors to choose, and Snape found himself surprised and disproportionately flattered that she asked for his opinion.
"My present best options include Oxford and the newly-established DMA in Cambridge, but I was also toying with the idea of studying elsewhere," she said, popping an olive into her mouth. She had stolen it from his plate.
"There is always the Sorbonne. I saw the letter you received from them last week." He took a sip of the wine; it was his second glass, and Hermione was on her fourth. "I understand that they have a good Potions theory program, which you can take as a minor, and an excellent Higher Arithmancy program, should that be your preference."
To his surprise, she wrinkled her nose, and he laughed at the unexpectedness of it. "France?" she said. "It's a lovely idea. But I don't fancy the idea of coming home from France only every weekend. I'd like to be able to stay in England during the rest of the week."
His fork stopped midway to his mouth. Hermione noticed and he put it down quickly and took a large gulp of wine to calm himself under her scrutiny. Come home? To England? Home—with him? Still, in the future?
"Severus?" she said. "Are you quite all right? Are you tired?"
"No!" he said emphatically, startling her. "No," he said more softly. "Not at all. I think I—was going to choke. I'm fine now. You were saying?" The words came in a rush, but they met their objective of making Hermione dismiss the subject.
"I was saying it would be better to stay close to home. I appreciate the challenge of going to university speaking a second language, but I couldn't stand the distance."
He chewed slowly and swallowed. The food, which had been so fine when it was first put on his plate, seemed to have turned to ash in his mouth; his easy mood of earlier vanished. "You haven't considered settling in France for the long term?" he said carefully. "For the duration of your university career?"
"I couldn't possibly," she said, without missing a beat. Noticing that both of their plates were clean, she summoned a waiter to ask for dessert. "Who would be in England to make sure you were eating? And not terrorizing the ickle firsties with your foul moods?"
Gradually, he changed the subject, and put this conversation away in the back of his mind. Later he would turn it over and over again in his mind and put it in a pensieve, where he would look at it so often that it would be worn with use, but right now there was dessert, and Hermione laughing and pink with the wine.
They biked home to the Naples house, and he proposed that they stay overnight there but Hermione remembered in her tipsy haze that she had not fed the cat. He helped her to the fireplace in the dark master bedroom of his house, and saw that she stepped in. When she was gone—she hundreds of miles away in Scotland, he in Italy—he allowed himself a moment, a pause for thought.
Would he ever understand his wife—or his place in her future? The things she said filled him with hope, but what if he had been reading her wrong, or what if she changed her mind? The memory of Hermione herself telling him about the repealing of the marriage law—the memory of Arthur Weasley's haggard but triumphant face on the Daily Prophet. Could he allow himself the audacity of hoping?
If there was anything he had learned from his relationship with his wife, it was that the present was better enjoyed than analyzed. For months now he had lived in a paradigm of uncertainty, wavering always between idyllic visions of a future with his wife—the culmination of all of his longings—and the more likely prospect of a life alone after his wife left him, free to pursue her career and romantic entanglements, both of which would satisfactorily not include him. She had had to live with the cadence and changes of his moods, but he had learned to live with hers too, with one day being offered a smile and the next being offered a cold shoulder—with one day being her companion and friend, and the next learning himself to be a cuckolded husband. It was better not to think too much on a future that did not exist yet, than to spoil whatever happiness was held by the present.
And tonight had been happy. He could not remember being happier. If this were to be the last of such heady halcyon nights, then so be it; the memory of it would be held dearer than anything. But she had given him reason to hope that it would continue… and that was enough for him to shake himself from his reverie and to step into his fireplace, back home.
No sooner had he stepped out of his bedroom's fireplace in the dungeons than he was assaulted. His alarm was swept away by the realization that it was not rogue death-eaters who had flung their arms around his neck and kissed his stubbled chin, but his giggling wife. His heart speeded in its beating for quite another reason, as she tipped his head down and began to kiss him.
As kisses went it was slightly sloppy and more than slightly drunk, but his foolish heart soared. Could she be aware of what she was doing? He gave a thought to stopping her—even put his hands on her shoulders to push her away. The thought that she was merely drunk bloomed in his chest like something poignant and painful, but she overwhelmed his senses and soon after discouraged all thought. He allowed himself to hold her, carefully, as she stood in the darkness of his—their—bedroom holding her and kissing her. As a husband kissed a wife—for the very first time.
How could he describe a kiss like that? The love in his heart had progressed beyond affections and honor and possessiveness and the natural human lust, to the point that whatever she gave to him, he would gladly have taken—as a dog would take a bone thrown to him to keep him quiet. This was why he had been content to imagine, in his mind, scenes of the merely domestic; not even when she had started sleeping in his bed did he allow his imagination to reach into the dark secret world that existed for men and women who were truly married, and whose love found expression in a language that did not consist of words.
He was glad he had never imagined a kiss, for the reality of it would have surpassed the fancy. He could never have made up by himself the sensation of one hand caressing a rough cheek and the other, twining about his cropped hair and sending shivers down his bowed back. He could never have imagined the feel of her dress wrinkling under his grip on her waist, or the way she would push him to the bed so that his knees would bend and they would both collapse on top of the covers. The curtain of her hair, surrounding their faces in its shadow and the cloud of its perfume, entrapped him so that he could give no thought to stopping, no thought to anyone else she had kissed, because at the moment she felt as though she belonged to him.
He thought his heart would stop when, still poised above him and kissing him slowly, she began to unbutton his frock coat.
"Your hair is black now," she whispered suddenly against his mouth, and he remembered their fading glamours. "Your face is yours. Finally. How I've waited, this whole night."
Fear and anticipation rushed through him and he tried to sit up, tried to make her stop so that he might have one moment to think, one moment to remember himself, one moment to understand why she was doing these things. "Hermione—"
"I wanted to kiss you since the moment we landed in your beautiful house," she said, beginning now to trail hot kisses from his ear to his chin and, once, sweetly to his mouth. "But I couldn't kiss you with your hair so brown. I wanted you only to be you."
"Hermione… perhaps we should just…"
"Will you ask me to stop?" she said. "Will you not kiss your Desdemona?"
"You're drunk!" The reference stung him.
"I'm not," she said, sitting up and smiling down at him, a smile that lit the room as though the candles in the sconces had been lit. "Not drunk. Only courageous. I could never bring myself to do this," and she swooped down again to kiss him, "without a little help."
In a smaller voice as she leaned over him, "Please don't reject me."
"I—I won't," he said, grasping her shoulders and trying to understand what she was thinking, and why. "I'm not rejecting you. Never that."
He was rewarded with a beatific smile.
He sat up, looking clearly into her eyes and seeing mirrored, there, the affection and hope that bloomed from his chest to the tips of his fingers, more amazing than the product of any fantasy. Why, Hermione? he thought. It is you who should spurn me, not I you. She kissed him then with swollen lips and laid her palm over his heart. "And I'll still stay," she whispered. "To have you still forget, forgetting any other home but this."
He could only smile. "You're mixing up your Shakespeare."
And for the very first time, he leaned in to kiss her.
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Moments later, they were interrupted by a harsh knocking. Hermione sent him a wistful smile as he rose, still fully clothed, and answered the door to the person in his sitting room; there was only one man who could have been standing there, and sure enough there was Dumbledore.
Snape closed the door carefully behind him and calmly asked the Headmaster, "What brings you here at this late hour, Albus?"
He had felt like handing his superior a reprimand for interrupting him and his wife… but there was something, a grieved and slightly panicked look in the other man's bleak blue eyes that stopped him and made him forget temporarily the bewildering happiness that lay on the other side of the door.
Albus handed him a scroll. "This came tonight," he said. "I tried to find you earlier but you were both not in the castle."
Snape knew a sense of foreboding sneak up on him, a feeling that twisted his gut even as he took the scroll from the headmaster. "Albus," he said, when he had looked at the writing on the parchment, feeling his head begin to spin and his stomach drop out from underneath him. He felt sick. "Albus. What is this?"
He would never forget the next words to come from the headmaster's mouth. "Annulment papers," he said.
Snape's hands began to shake. Hands that had held her so dearly, earlier; hands she had allowed to touch her face, to map it. Now they were ungraceful and seemed beyond his control. "Why?" he could only say. "When?"
Albus seemed to sense that there was no reason to phrase things more gently.
"Hermione obtained the ordinary wizarding annulment forms months ago," he said. "She brought them to Arthur Weasley and briefed him on the process, and wanted to be among the first to have her marriage annulled. I do not know the reason for the delay between the repealing of the law and the arrival of these papers, but Arthur sent them to me today, with a message to tell the both of you that such proceedings may now… take place with alacrity." He eyed Snape carefully. "Such alacrity as you and she may desire."
Snape felt his blood run cold in his veins. Images of the night that had passed—the months they had spent together—danced before his eyes, and he felt sick.
He was still standing in place half an hour later when the headmaster had departed and he heard her call, worriedly, from the other room.
End of chapter
1) Flooing across the marvelous distance between Scotland and Naples: is it possible? I prefer to think so. I don't think canon expressly forbids it.
2) DMA – department of Magical Arts. I fancy it's squished somewhere near the River Cam so errant potioneers can have a place to dump their not-so-successful concoctions where they will not be much noticed by anyone except the punters.
3) The restaurant is Antonio e Antonio. Not five-star, but the service is reportedly fast and the seafood good.
4) A free "Strong Poison" cookie for the first person to name the three plays of The bard that were quoted/referenced in this chapter.
5) Annulments generally take longer than a few signed papers. But keep in mind that there is a legitimate reason for these marriages to be annulled; the wizarding government played a part in their coming about, and in a just world, could only help them in clearing up any messes made tout de suite, once any such destructive law were repealed.
6) Apologies as always for the delay. I said at the end of my ficlet "The Curse" that my laptop crashed and I had to replace my unrecovered story chapters; this one surprisingly took just one night to write.