This is a non-profit tribute to the works of JK Rowling who, together with her publishers and licensees, owns the characters and situations elaborated herein.
A/N: Spoilers. This final chapter is a double-helping. Thanks to my previewers, Bellegeste and Cecelle, and to all my reviewers. A special thanks to Bellegeste for being inspired to write a brilliant prequel, see end.
Reactivating the curse: As Snape explained to Varvara, anyone Lucius has ever cursed (eg Ginny) can be his proxy in the first 48 hours after Snape's revival, or an object can be the agent of reactivation.
How long Hermione lay there grieving she didn't know, nor did she notice when she first felt a heart thudding under her cheek and arms reaching to hold her, tightening like steel bands. Then a familiar voice said the unthinkable.
"Am I a plant that you water my chest, Miss Granger? You made your displeasure at my survival clear enough; you need do no more. Only wait and all shall be rectified."
She was crying too hard to stop, but she lifted her head from his chest to stare into his shadowed eyes as he released her. She sat back on her heels, watching him painfully drag himself up to lean against the nearest tree.
"How could you? Oh, how could you?" she choked. "Sneaking off into the forest to die alone, like a sick animal! Don't you even want to live? You should have told me -"
"Told you what?" he spat. "Love me or be my death? As if loving came by choosing!"
She gulped and rubbed her hand across her eyes.
"You never even gave me a chance."
"A chance to say how angry I made you? You made that more than clear without need for words, but very well! Tell me, if you wish."
"I wasn't angry," she cried. "I was – I was confused. You hated me, only you didn't, and then you were dead and suddenly you weren't. Whenever I remembered how you used to bait me and my friends I hated you and whenever I watched you writing that letter I – I almost loved you. And when you came back,I didn't know which was real."
"Only a dunderhead could imagine that –sentimentality - was real. You don't even know me. Children never know their teachers."
"I didn't before. But I saw you in that letter. Just you. Clear seeing, unswerving - steadfast. You knew you were going to die, just like today. And you did what you thought was right and licked your wounds in private, just like always." Her throat worked. "You've always been alone, haven't you? I used to think you wanted to be."
"You don't love me. It's a silly child's fantasy!"
"I'm not a child. I've had four years since then to learn more about you. I work with people who were your colleagues for years – and your teachers before that - and I've grasped at every scrap they ever let fall about you. Your letter made me curious. I've sat up late at night, puzzling what I saw as a child through the eyes of an adult, so many little things I didn't see at the time. How you came rushing to save us in the Shrieking Shack, how you never punished us for knocking you out that night, your arguments in the staffroom about discipline and Quidditch and whose turn it was to supervise the Hogsmeade outings 'to see the dunderheads safely home again'. So don't tell me I don't know you!"
"You think that's love?"
"You're alive, aren't you? You were stone when I came. Draco said it was a True Love curse -"
"That boy needs to learn to keep quiet about what doesn't concern -"
"I asked!" Her voice was fierce. "You didn't tell me but somehow I knew something was – and I asked! And I'm glad I did!" She sniffed. "I thought I was too late. You were stone, you were cold and hard and -"
"Not so different from usual, then." He stared at the flattened grass just beyond his bare feet. "It was the curse, 'Hearts, as faces'. The change began outside and moved inwards but you must have arrived before it was complete."
She edged forward and reached a tentative hand to his face. He closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing. Anything can be borne without expression if one just breathes slowly and evenly. But her hand was on his cheek and her lips on his and there was no need to hide his feelings now so his hands snaked out and pulled her onto his lap and he settled down to the serious business of kissing Hermione.
Some time later, they were disturbed by twin pops. They looked up to find Ginny and Draco smirking at them. Hermione shifted but two hungry arms pulled her back.
"You always manage to surprise me, Severus," Draco said."Nice nightshirt, by the way." It wasn't. Smears and grass stains marred the crumpled cotton.
"What are you doing here, you unconscionable brat?" Severus scowled unmoving.
"Waiting for Potty and Weasel, if you must know." Draco's eyes laughed as Ginny smacked him on the arm. "And they're not too pleased with you for that wild-goose chase you sent them on, so if you two ever want to hear the end of it about cuddling half-naked in the Forbidden Forest -"
The adrenalin was fading but Severus couldn't let that pass.
"It might be worth the risk," he muttered. "The shock may bereave them of their speech permanently." And visual demonstration might save time explaining to those two dunderheads.
"Pity Draco told them to Apparate to the main gates," Ginny commiserated. "We only came here to check you were all right."
"I'm perfectly well," Snape began but his voice slurred.
Hermione glared at him.
"You're going straight back to bed and if you dare say another word – about anything - I'll Mobilicorpus you exactly as you are, right through all the students."
His attempt at an answer was drowned out by cackles from Draco and Ginny.
"Bossy as ever," Draco noted.
"Prat," Hermione retorted, waving them away.
In the event, she was forced to conjure a stretcher and Disillusion it and themselves to avoid being delayed by students or alumni on the way. Severus was able to stand, barely, but too weak to walk even with support.
"How you have the nerve to call other people dunderheads!" Hermione grumbled as she tucked him in. "You've put your recovery back by weeks, maybe months! If I hadn't been so caught up with that stupid dream-sending of Ginny's, I'd have noticed sooner that you were hiding something. How was I supposed to know you were cursed when you acted so calm? I hardly dare leave you for a moment now!"
"All the better," he yawned, "but I thought you were going to help them burn the book."
She smoothed his hair away from his damp face and he turned his head to nestle against her hand. Her thumb traced a line from his forehead to his jaw.
"They can do it without me," she said. "I'd rather be here. Anyway, Draco seems perfectly capable -"
"I never expected to hear you say that."
She bent to drop a kiss on his cheek. Somehow he managed to pull her down onto the bed and into his arms. She sighed and snuggled closer.
"You won't leave, will you? Promise you'll stay at Hogwarts with me after you're better, till there's a job."
"I don't need anyone's charity."
"It's not charity! Think of it as payment for services rendered. You won't be freeloading. You can brew for me, patrol the halls, tutor the remedial students – I know for a fact you're expert in Runes and Arithmancy, as well as -"
"Won't the current crop of Longbottoms adore you for that suggestion?" he jeered, but his hand went to stroke her cheek.
Just then, Varvara walked in on them. She blinked.
"You're back," she announced as Hermione scrambled off the bed. "You must be feeling better if you were well enough to go out, Professor, I'm so glad! Some parents that came for the Quidditch have asked whether you'd be well enough to see them. They wanted to offer you a job."
"Varvara," Hermione said weakly, "you didn't ask them to, did you?" Her hand tightening on his arm kept Severus from exploding.
"Oh, no!" Varvara gave a sunny smile. "I only mentioned how Professor Snape's old job was filled -"
"Go back and tell them, 'Not today'," Hermione cut in. "They can Owl."
"That girl had better hope I take one of those jobs," Severus muttered, rubbing his abused arm as Varvara bounced out. "If I stay here, I'll put her in detention for the rest of the year."
There followed an hour of blessed privacy. He dozed and woke to find her watching over him. Once assured that he was rested enough for conversation, she raised questions she'd been pondering for years. When had he fallen in love? Surely not when she was eleven? He'd always seemed to hate her.
"You were a nuisance in the classroom," he said, "and an even bigger nuisance out of it, with your wild reckless exploits. I didn't see anything to admire till the second half of your sixth year but then I seemed to find more every time I looked. All that's best and worst of Gryffindor combines in you."
"I thought you didn't like anything about Gryffindors."
"So did I." He set his teeth. "I had no right, no right to think of you at all. I stood in place of your father."
"But you weren't my father." She squeezed his hand. "Feelings don't come by rights. Ginny said that about your letter, only I didn't understand then. You never did anything wrong. Even after your death – what we thought was your death - you waited till I wasn't a student to send it."
Slowly his face relaxed.
"There must have been a moment when you realised," she added. "When was that?"
Colour crept into the wan cheeks.
"You were consoling Longbottom after his toad died."
"Oh, I remember! You were so nasty about it; you told him that such foolish affections invariably brought disaster." She watched the red spread over his face and neck. "It wasn't him you were speaking to at all, was it?"
When Ron came hurtling in a little while later, followed by Ginny and Draco, he didn't at first notice their joined hands.
"Malfoy's not a total ferret, after all," he announced. "You should have come, Hermione, you'd have liked to see the ritual he dreamed up. And when the book caught fire, I thought he was going to go up with it, the way it swirled around him!"
Hermione turned her head.
"He said he had to go. He'll keep in touch." Ron looked shifty.
"It's my fault," Ginny said. "I told him again that I'm not going to marry him. It's not me he loves, really, it's being a Weasley. And he has that anyhow, in all but name. He wants me to be like Mum, but I never will be."
Hermione's brow furrowed. If Ginny had chosen Draco, wouldn't Ron be sulking now?
"Not me, either," Draco answered her questioning glance. "I wasn't fool enough to ask today. She's just ended an affair that's been going on almost half her life, she's hardly going to be ready for another."
"And you're not the only two men in the world, either," Ginny shot back. "No reason it has to be either of you."
Ron nodded smugly but Draco was unfazed.
"You'd tell me if I had no hope ever."
Ron's grin faltered.
"You can't marry a Malfoy! His dad cursed you!" His eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Maybe that's what the curse was all about, getting you to marry ferret-face here so he could control you."
Draco rolled his eyes and inspected his well-cared-for nails.
"I'm sure he wanted to control you," he agreed. "Seventh child - and a way to get back at your dad. They always hated each other. We can only guess why he never tried. Or maybe he did and you were too powerful. But he'd never have countenanced my marriage to a Weasley. If you were silly enough to be driven by revenge, frankly I can't think of a better." His grey eyes lifted to meet Ginny's. "Only you'd never make a choice based on anything so pointless, would you?"
Ginny looked back, half-frowning, but her voice was friendly.
"Think you know me, do you? Show-off."
"Urgh," Ron said, revolted. "You can't marry a Slytherin."
"Why not?" Draco asked, cheerfully throwing his fellow-Slytherin to the wolves. "Hermione's going to."
Ron made a face.
"Nah, she wouldn't."
"Then why is she holding hands with her patient?"
Long pale fingers tightened around Hermione's in sudden anxiety. She squeezed back. Ginny swatted Draco on the arm again and Ron went an interesting shade of magenta.
"You – you – you're not – the letter – Not Snape, Hermione, tell me you're not keen on Snape!"
"Sorry, Ron, I've never lied to you and I won't start now."
"But – but why?"
Snape answered for her.
"Because loving doesn't come by choosing, Mr Weasley. And neither of us has a heart of stone."
A/N"Serious business of kissing..." was unintentionally lifted from D.E Stevenson's "Winter and Rough Weather" but fit too well to remove.
If this wasn't enough for you, I highly recommend "The Moment", by Bellegeste. She's turned Snape's comment, "You were consoling Longbottom after his toad died," into an absorbing and satisfying one shot. (Spot the Varvara reference LOL.)