It's her Seventh Year and she's in the Restricted Section with a candle by her knees and her head bent low over an open book. She feels the shudder of Snape's footsteps through the floor before she hears them, feels the steady regard of his deep and shadowed eyes before she sees them.
"Miss Granger," he says. His voice is raw.
She doesn't respond, too consumed with her reading; too lost in a dance of spells and words, ideas that travel across her brain in ecstatic whorls of knowledge. It's always been her and books – before Harry, before Ron, it's always been this way. Her and books.
"Miss Granger," he says. His voice is raw and sounds like tears.
She flips a page. The candle's flame is warm against the cloth of her robe. She mouths the words as she reads, tastes the syllables sliding across her tongue and slithering their way down her throat, making a home in the heart of her. She's not done yet. She's not done looking – not done. She'll never be done, not until she's found it, found the spell, found that precious elusive piece of knowledge that will –
"Miss Granger," he says, and his voice is raw but insistent; and it reminds her of tears and the sound of screaming. And then he's on his knees as well. By her side, reaching out with cautious trembling hands, golden by the light of the candle. He's there.
Hermione chokes on a sob. It's not supposed to be him that survived. It's not. He has nobody that loves him – has nobody that needs him – he's old, for Merlin's sake. He was supposed to die and leave the bitterness that stalked all her seven years of Potions classes behind. He was supposed to die.
And it's not that she wants him dead or wishes him ill. But if she could trade his life – if she could, if she had that power, she would.
Maybe there's a reason why she doesn't have that power.
And all around them the rest of the world is celebrating. And all around them the air tastes of victory. And all around them, all around her, she is alone.
And she knows they died for this world, for this taste, for this man. She knows that they were brave and daring, self-sacrificing, bastards for leaving. She knows that they didn't ever think that maybe death would be preferable to this ache, to this slow and steady burn of held down tears, to this constant overwhelming pressure in her brain. To this grief.
And she knows she should never have made the mistake of leaving books behind, of trusting in something else to take the loneliness away. But now she's come back to them, her oldest friends; she's counting on them. They have to give her the answers. They have to give her back Harry, give her back Ron. They have to. She's not right without them.
Snape's hands reach out to her, but falter halfway and fall. "They made me promise," he says. "To care for you. They made me swear."
"I don't care," she says dully. "I don't care."
And she wonders in her more desperate moments if this is what it's like to live with less than half a soul, less than half a heart – because she'd given both those things away in her First year, had still steadily been giving them all these years, and now they were gone; and what was left was shattering, breaking, never to be fixed. She doesn't have it in her to care anymore.
Except Snape is still there. He hasn't gone, and even if it's not him that should be with her, at least someone is. Dimly, distantly horrified, she feels a sob wracking her gut. It shakes her, trembles even her knees, makes her raise her arms to her head in a desperate bid to hide the tears. She knows her face must be contorted now, utterly disgusting: a rictus expression, leaking salt tears and trails of snot. Pain's never meant to look pretty.
Except Snape is still there, and he knows; and he reaches out again. This time he doesn't falter, just gathers her into his own arms, cradles her helplessly trembling body to his chest. The gesture is surprisingly sweet and comforting, and she hears his harsh whispering into her hair, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," and they're words she'd never expected him to say.
They stay huddled together for what seems like forever. Eventually the candle's light flickers out, but that doesn't seem to matter. Night has passed and darkness faded. All that's left before them is day.