Disclaimer: Sigh. This is not mine. I can claim nothing but the story.
A/N: Please review! Please? I am making pathetically pleading puppy eyes at all you! Please review?
There, By the Grace of God, Go I
It would have been obvious to anyone watching the woman in the entrance to the cathedral that she hadn't been raised Catholic. She didn't genuflect, she didn't splash the basin of holy water, she didn't cross herself at all. Clad entirely in black, she merely made her way through the candlelit emptiness and sat down in a pew, staring at everything around her. Her gloved hands anxiously smoothed the black lace shawl pinned over her honey caramel curls, her dark brown eyes darting about.
There was someone else in the house of God, that night, someone who recognized the tension in her as the natural result in someone who has survived being a pivotal point in a war. He recognized the weariness in her eyes, the despairing slump of her shoulders. More importantly, however, this man recognized her, and was wondering what Hermione Granger was doing all alone in a French cathedral on the night of All Hollow's Eve.
As for himself, he was a constant visitor to this place, this last bastion of peace and sanctity. To find the Granger girl in it startled him, at the very least. Black robes sweeping behind him, he glided silently down the aisle towards her.
She shot to her feet, wand out and pointed at him before he even had time to blink. She stared at him, astonishment written into every pore. "Professor Snape?"
"I highly doubt such a title is necessary anymore, Miss Granger," he replied, his rich voice as smooth as ever, but she heard the deeper pains. "I am no longer your professor, nor anyone's professor, and you are no longer a student."
"Ah." She stared at him a moment longer, the wheels turning as always in her mind, and she cocked her head to one side. "What are you doing here?"
"I might ask you the same thing."
"You might," she agreed. "But I asked you first."
"I come here often, Miss Granger," he answered, unsure as to why he didn't simply turn and walk away. "It is a very good place to think."
"To think, yes," she mused, sitting back down in the pew. Her eyes traveled over the intricate stained glass windows, their details lost in the enveloping darkness outside.
"So what are you doing here, Miss Granger?" he asked, seating himself beside her. They hadn't seen each other since that horrible night, that night when he'd lost his soul past all redemption, but she didn't seem inclined to hex him, which was enough in and of itself to arouse his curiosity, something that had been all but dead these last years. "I should have thought you'd be at the anniversary celebrations?"
"I never attend them," came the absent response. "There aren't many there I care to see, and not much I wish to remember."
She looked at him from the corner of her eye, inspecting him thoughtfully. His black hair was longer than she remembered, constantly falling into his face, but he seemed more or less content to simply brush it away rather than tie it back or cut it. The depth of agony in his pitch eyes reverberated in her very soul, the lines of his face thinner and harsher than their last meeting six years before. It had been five years since the fall of Voldemort on Hallowe'en, but he seemed very little changed. What had been pre-existing had simply been refined and drawn out. "You don't keep much contact with the outside world, do you, sir?" she surmised finally, startling him once again.
"I see no need to," he almost snarled. "If it will leave me alone, I will leave it alone. I am surprised, however, that you do not wish to see your friends and mentors and celebrate what you achieved."
"What we achieved," she echoed with a humorless laugh. "Sometimes I wonder how much we truly did achieve. Besides, who's left for me to celebrate with?"
"Surely the other members of the Golden Trio…" he trailed off when she looked away, one finger lightly touching the knuckle of her ring finger of her left hand. He could see a bulge that looked suspiciously like a ring underneath the black leather glove. "They disapproved of a betrothal or marriage?"
"Ron asked me to marry him a few weeks before Halloween that year," she shrugged. She slid off the gloves and regarded her hands. He could see the scars of old curses running along the back of her hand up onto her wrist where it disappeared into her sleeve, and a gold set diamond gleamed on her finger. "I don't know why I said yes," she admitted, her voice distant. "I suppose I figured at least one of us wouldn't make it through the war, and it seemed to make him feel more at ease. I could've been content, I suppose," she continued. "But in the end, it didn't matter."
"Mister Weasley is dead?"
"Most of the Weasleys are dead," she answered, not quite dismissively.
He took a closer look at her, shocked to see strands of silver gleaming beneath the shawl. Her face told some of the same story of his own; too many nights lost to sleeplessness, fear of dreams and memories, too many days alone. "What of Mister Potter?" he pressed gently, trying to understand the sudden enigma of what used to be an annoying know it all.
"Do you really want the full run down of my friends and family, Professor?" she asked wearily, but there was a spark of morbid humor to her eyes. "Harry killed himself after the war because the Ministry treated him the same way Dumbledore always had: as a weapon, and once the war was won they had no further need for a weapon and he was shunted off to the side. He'd lost Ron, he'd lost Dumbledore, and we were only starting to find out how many more had been lost.
"My parents, of course, were murdered during what would have been my seventh year, as I'm sure you're aware," she ignored his guilty cringe, "Ginny died about a week before Halloween, Bill and Fleur were murdered on their way to St. Mungo's to have their child, Charlie is maimed for life and they're still not entirely sure if he's going to survive, George died in the battle so Fred is permanently in St. Mungo's as a living ghost, and Minerva and Filius died simply of old age. Hagrid disappeared with Grawp afterwards, and Mrs. Weasley died in the last attack. Neville was of course, was killed by Bellatrix Lestrange, and Remus and Tonks were both killed by Fenrir Greyback. Shall I continue?"
"You didn't mention Percy."
"Why would I?"
"Ah." They stared in silence at the marble crucifix, each wrapped in their own thoughts. "That still doesn't explain why you're here," he mentioned finally. "I didn't realize you were of the faith."
"I'm not," she answered simply. "My mother was raised Catholic, though, before marrying my father, and she always used to go to the cathedral when she was stressed. I figured I'd see if it helped."
"And does it?"
"I don't know yet." Her mind teemed with questions, but she wasn't sure she wanted to ask them. It was so very strange to be sitting here, calmly talking with him, the self-styled half-blood Prince, the murderer of Dumbledore, the greasy git of the dungeons. Part of her didn't want to overturn this strange affinity they were sharing, didn't want to bring out his formidable temper with personal questions. And part of her simply didn't want to know the answers. She'd been alone for five years, after spending seven years on nothing but the war. She just didn't care anymore. "Are you, sir?"
"Am I what?"
"Of the faith?"
"Not precisely," he told her. His hands had never held a rosary, his lips had never formed a scripted prayer, yet faith was there, in its own way. He watched her fingertips lightly trace the scars on the back of her hand, treating the ring in the same fashion. "What's going on in that mind of yours, Miss Granger?"
"Hermione, please. As you said, we're no longer at Hogwarts."
Taking a deep breath, Hermione pulled her eyes away from the scars. "I'm trying to decide if my mother was right about the church helping the lost find their way."
"How do you mean?"
"That was what she used to tell me. She said that the church helped those who were lost to find their way. But I think what she neglected to take into account is that not everyone has a way. You have to be moving somewhere, heading somewhere, before you can be lost. I've been looking for my way for five years, and I think I finally just have to accept that I no longer have a way. My entire purpose in life was to help Harry defeat Voldemort, and having accomplished that at eighteen, I'm simply a ghost until my body gives out and I die."
"You don't really believe that, do you?" he demanded gently, shaken to his core. He had never told her, could never have told her, that she had been his only hope for the future as far as his students were concerned. So bright and focused, determined to make a difference in the simple things that mattered so much more than anything else, she had been the one worth teaching. To see her with no goal…
"I think I do believe it," she countered mildly. "I can't seem to find anything I want to do. I don't even really study anymore. It's a habit, a routine, but I don't get any pleasure from it anymore. There doesn't seem to be a point to it."
"That saddens me more than you can possibly know, Miss Granger."
She glanced at him inquisitively. "Why does it sadden you?" she asked softly.
He almost didn't tell her, but if it gave her a purpose, then his pride be damned. "Perhaps it's purely selfish, but I had hoped that you might be my redemption." She opened her mouth to reply, but then shut it again, simply watching him, and he continued. "Someone even brighter than I was, good at everything she set her mind to, full of hope and compassion and genuine goodness, who would help to fix all the mistakes I had made. You were the opposite of me in every way that mattered."
A long silence stretched out between them, but it wasn't uncomfortable, merely thoughtful. When she did speak, anyone who didn't know her well might have thought her statement a non sequiter. "Do you believe in redemption, sir?"
"I used to," he murmured. "I suppose in some way I still do, still crave it knowing that I will never deserve it."
"But isn't that part of redemption? She suggested. "The fact that we're not worthy of it and receive it anyway?"
"Do we receive it?" he mused, his fingers tracing the pew in front of them. "I used to think that I could earn it. That by giving up everything I had ever dreamed of, by giving up who I was, I might work towards it and eventually earn it. Albus gave me the chance to do that."
"Albus was a puppet master. You don't give redemption to puppets," she stated flatly, and silently, he couldn't help but agree. Albus had cheated him of the very redemption he'd offered; it was hard to forget that, even if it was hard to hear it in the bitter sweetness of a twenty-three year old woman's voice. "He left too much undone."
"He took too much upon himself to begin with," he mentioned, feeling the absurd need to defend him.
"He still left it undone. That damn portrait," she spat, hands clenching in her lap. "He'd been cheating death for so long that there was almost nothing left to instill in the portrait. He went ahead and begged for death, knowing that he was leaving us alone."
"Begged for death," Severus echoed, an icy knot settling itself in the hollow of his stomach. "What do you mean?"
"Harry told us," she explained easily, but the bitterness hadn't left her voice. Her chocolate brown eyes were hard and cold as the marble statues all around them. "But Harry was the perfect Gryffindor, he never grasped the subtleties. Dumbledore was dying anyway; I suppose he thought he was 'saving' Draco by asking you to kill him. If Dumbledore hadn't expected to die, hadn't wanted to die, he wouldn't have put Harry in that body-bind. Harry was a good dueler, he could've held his own fairly well. But he immobilized Harry because he wanted to give up, leaving us all to think the worst of you when he'd defended you so adamantly through the years."
"You sound as if you didn't think the worst of me," he managed finally through the lump in his throat.
"He was a manipulative bastard, but he trusted you," she said simply. "That had to count for something, and then Harry told me about that night. It just didn't add up right, and it didn't make sense to me that he finally gave you the DADA position, what with the curse and all. He knew everything, the old bastard, and he set you up to hang from the gallows while he enjoyed a hero's death. He was out of pain, and he sent all the rest of us spiraling into it. I'm surprised he didn't ask you to give him the Kiss of Judas."
She stared at him, at the painful emptiness in his pitch black eyes. "That bastard," she breathed again. The Kiss of Judas was an old spell, given its name after Judas Iscariot, a tormented wizard who'd done what he'd had to do to insure the salvation of an entire world. The Kiss, so different from the Dementor's, gave a blessing to the victim, to the sacrifice. "That arrogant bastard, comparing himself to Christ."
"There were many who hailed him as the saviour of the wizarding world, Hermione."
"There were many who hailed Tom the same way," came her pithy reply. Abruptly, she stood and wandered down the pew, to a tapestry hanging on the cold stone wall, and he followed. Their eyes traveled over the piece of work, depicting a fiery hell, complete with sinners writhing in the lake of fire. In the upper edges, angels and saints looked on with satisfaction.
Severus nodded abstractedly, absently rubbing at his left forearm. "There, by the grace of God, go I," he quoted morbidly.
"I doubt it," she disagreed cryptically. "Some hells are more poignant on earth." She sighed and leaned against the wall, closing her weary eyes. "I refuse to believe that Judas Iscariot is rotting in hell for fulfilling God's plan. It was always the plan that the Son of God had to be betrayed; surely even God isn't that cruel."
"If God is anything like Albus Dumbledore, that is exactly what I expect," he chuckled humorlessly.
"Sometimes I wish I'd never gotten that letter twelve years ago," she whispered. "I'd still have my parents, the friends I'd grown up with, I might still be in school or I might have graduated early. I might have had normal dates and normal catastrophes, and a pimple on a school day might have been the absolute worst thing I could think of."
"And we would all have been quite bereft," he said without thinking, but when she looked sharply at him, he didn't take it back.
"Everyone hated me until Halloween my first year," she reminisced. "Until that damn troll. Even then, most others weren't very fond of me for years."
"I know the feeling," he agreed dryly, and she smiled slightly.
"Yes, I'm sure you do." She started walking again, and he followed again. She simply wandered around, her fingers trailing over the statues, dipping into the pools of melted wax left by the prayer candles. They made it around the entire sanctuary in silence, coming to a halt in the front corner. Hermione stared at the serene countenance of the Magdalene, the prostitute who had gone on to become the beloved of Christ, and some sources claimed, even his wife. Mary had had her redemption, her salvation, before blood was ever required. It didn't seem fair.
"What are you thinking?"
"That I'm glad I remembered my mother's words tonight," she answered honestly. She smiled up at him again, that bare quirk of her lips, and he realized that it was probably the most she'd smiled in five years. "Maybe purgatory's not so lonely with company."
"At the risk of being insensitive," and he saw her smirk yet again, "won't your friends start spinning in their graves in they see you less than suicidal depressive in my company?"
"They're dead. Maybe it's time I started remembering that I'm still alive."
"And that perhaps it's for a reason?"
"Careful, or I might start mistaking you for Trelawney." His snort of pure derision was more than enough to show his sentiment about that. Her smile faded, and she met his gaze once more. "I honestly was surprised to see you still alive."
"No more surprised than I was, I assure you," he replied. "I never expected to live past the final battle, and in the end, I wasn't even there."
"I know. Harry was going frantic, looking for you. I think it was a toss up for who he wanted to kill more, you or Voldemort."
"Well, that is an unexpected glory," he quipped wryly.
"Yes, isn't it. We all made such a fuss over a monster who, when it came right down to it, was simply a man that was too scared to die. He even put it in his name."
"Most humans are scared to die, Hermione. It's part of what makes us human."
"There's natural human fear, and then there's extremes. It's how we deal with that fear that defines us."
"'We should not fear coming to the end of our life, only that we have done nothing with it.'," she whispered, as much to herself as to him.
"Who said that?"
"I can't remember." With a near silent murmur, one of the candles on the niche altar flared into life.
"Who is that one for?"
"For the living," she replied. "The dead have enough candles."
"How did you get these scars?" he asked, reaching out to lightly trace an almost skeletal finger across the raised surfaces.
She shivered, but did not pull away. "A parting gift from the Ferret." Her lips twisted, but he couldn't read the expression they detailed. "I still see him, sometimes, in my dreams. He looked so stunned that the great Draco Malfoy had been brought down by a lowly mud blood."
"You killed Draco?"
" A little," he admitted. "But then, I should have long ago stopped being surprised by the ferocity of a lioness defending her cubs."
She actually laughed softly, a sound rusty from disuse, but welcome. "God, how Harry and Ron would have squirmed to hear themselves described in such a way."
"The description certainly fits, but they weren't who I was referring to."
"Who then?" Her hand curved into his, their fingers barely interlacing as they stood close together.
"I didn't use to be quite as out of touch as I am now," he explained, his thumb slowly stroking her palm. "Only a week or so after the battle, I stumbled across two witches in a café in Cannes; they were speaking of you. They said that every moment not spent at Harry and Ron's side was spent either with the healers or defending the students. One of them had apparently been there; she said she'd never seen anything like you before, that a great many parents owed you their thanks for not having empty beds in their children's rooms."
"That's one of the things I hate about war stories," she commented casually. "They always get blown so out of proportion."
"Perhaps," he agreed peaceably, stroking her silver and caramel curls under the black lace shawl. It wasn't quite as frizzy as it used to be, though it would never be called sleek. Severus had long ago given up trying to understand the ways in which Fate worked, but this had to be one of the strangest. Of all the times, of all the places…of all the people. "You seem to be surprising me a great deal, Miss Granger."
"Hermione. After five years, and given our past history, I would have expected-"
"Me to be hissing and spitting with claws unsheathed?"
"Yes," he affirmed blandly.
"Maybe I've finally grown into myself," she offered. "I don't suppose I got a normal childhood, whatever the hell that is, but maybe I've finally grown into that forced maturity. I can't afford to hold pointless, stupid grudges anymore; there's so little left as it is." She folded her right arm across her stomach, letting her fingertips linger on his arm where she knew his Dark Mark to be. "I could just as easily have gone the way of Harry, you know."
"You're stronger than Potter ever was," he countered dismissively. "You learned to stand on your own two feet, while he only ever hid behind everyone else's."
"As much as you have reason to hate him, sir, I think you do him too little credit. Harry was strong."
"Not strong enough, or he would have been relieved to no longer be the attention of the wizarding world."
"That's exactly it," she agreed. "He was the absolute center of attention, both positive and negative, for seven years, and completely ignored or mistreated at the Dursley's for the ten years before that. Gryffindors are brave, but there are limits to that, and we have to be rewarded for our bravery in order for it to make any kind of difference."
"Like you're rewarded, avoiding every celebration you can?" he murmured silkily in her ear. His skin burned where she touched him. The Dark Lord had always summoned his followers through the Mark, a fiery, scalding pain, but at his death, the pain had turned to ice. It had been so cold, for so long, that he'd lost much of the feeling in it. For five years, he'd had minimal use of the entire arm, but even through his robes, he could feel the warmth of her bare touch.
"Maybe my reward is to be left alone, uncelebrated."
"Because you don't want the celebrations they wouldn't give Potter?"
"Partly. After he died, they realized that I was the only one left of the Golden Trio. We'd all been through so much together, but I was the only one getting any recognition. I never got the recognition when we were younger, it was always Harry, then Ron, then me." Her fingers drifted down to her ring once again. "That was just the natural order of things."
"Except where the teachers were concerned," he felt obliged to point out. "They always looked at you, first."
He followed her gaze down to the small diamond. It seemed terribly wrong against her hand. They had always been splattered in ink when he'd seen them, precisely and carefully preparing potions ingredients, elegant in their grace. The ring was a little too blocky for her slender fingers, too bright a gold for her coloring. "Would you truly have been content?"
"I think I could have been content," she answered, understanding more than his words. "I don't know that I would've been happy, but I don't think I would have been violently unhappy."
"So you would have settled?"
"No one else had ever wanted me," she shrugged. "And I didn't want to be alone for my entire life."
His grip tightened on her, his other hand sliding around her waist and holding even more closely. "Never settle, Hermione," he hissed. "You're too good for that."
"Am I?" she mused calmly. "I haven't done anything productive in five years. I sit alone in my flat, not doing anything. I eat when I remember, which isn't all that often, and I can't remember the last time I had anything that could be called a sleep routine. Once a month I visit the graves of those closest to me, and try to avoid being recognized by everyone else doing the same thing. I haven't been challenged in five years, haven't been touched by anything…tonight's the first time since that night that I've actually lived."
Greatly daring, he brushed her soft cheek with his lips. "Here's to life, then."
They stood in comfortable silence until the chill became too much to bear, and she looked up at him curiously. "Would you like to come back to my flat for tea?" she asked suddenly, and he stared at her, startled.
"I would love to," he answered quietly.
She squeezed his hand and took a step forward. "Can you wait for me outside?" She murmured. "I think I have one last thing to do."
Nodding, he left her standing in the corner and walked down the central aisle, his black robes sweeping around him. She gazed after him, then turned her attention back to the Magdalene. The beloved of Christ…reviled for her former status, then revered for her later life. Her redemption had nothing to do with blood, nothing to do with spying and death and battles. She had made a choice, left behind the life she knew, to follow the love that bloomed in her heart. It had been her salvation.
Staring down at the ring on her left hand, Hermione made her choice.
She walked out of the cathedral and found the clump of shadows in the darkness that were a different shade of black. She held out her hand and he pulled her close into his arms and warmth, letting her lead the apparition.
In the cradled hands of the Magdalene, a gold and diamond ring gleamed in the flickering candlelight.