Chapter 4 - The High Cost of Casual Wishes

This time Snape was more aggressive and smelled, more than spied, his quarry at the dark end of the bar.

"Mundungus," stated Severus in a smooth voice, dripping with disgust.

"Snape, it took you bloody long 'nuf," grumbled Dung over pipe and pint before turning on his stool to face the voice behind him.

Mundungus Fletcher puffed deeply on his pipe and exhaled a thick blue smoke. "Funny though, gettin' an owl from yeh after all these years. Was at yer weddin' after all, but what the bird sees in yehs is a mystery to me. But wi' that face full of fur, I don't suppose she sees much of yeh anyway."

"Hmm, it's a pity I could not postpone this reunion for several decades," Snape quipped and then added, "but you never could say no to an easy job."

"Aye, and me recollectin' what 'append to blokes sayin' no to yeh," muttered Dung under his breath, "but that be in the past, right?"

Snape smiled sinisterly at that comment, causing Dung to slosh his pint.

"Where's the goods?" groused Dung under his breath, flicking his smudged fingers rapidly into his palm in a 'gimme' action.

"Before I do," remarked Snape silkily and then adding in a deadly tone, "I know the inventory, and I will be checking with the recipient."

"Fine 'nuf," Dung agreed, then hastily gulping the remainder of his ale. "You can trust ole Dung."

Severus passed the satchel over and issued a reminder. "Expect an owl with your payment once I have confirmed the delivery, and expect another owl in a month with new instructions."

"Aye, Gov'ner, pleasure doing business with yeh," replied Dung gruffly in a manner showing it wasn't a pleasure at all.

Hermione thought the next memory didn't fit the pattern at all. Severus stood upon a rock pillar at the edge of the sea. The night was clear, and she could hear the wind and the waves and saw millions of stars. All he did was stand amidst the earthly vastness and gaze forever at the heavens. He was like a boiling cauldron of emotions; it was difficult to sort him out.

Hermione turned to Severus, touching his arm and looking at him, and he saw the question on her face.

"I realized that day that I've been blessedly sheltered by you these past several years. It was that day's sudden reminder of life I already know, and I was not prepared for the level of… contrast between what I have that others do not," Severus explained, his voice rumbling quietly.

Hermione responded in kind. "It isn't a crime to be loved, or cared for, Severus."

"I know, but I wonder, and I could not stop thinking of how I did not become as they did," he replied with a subtle edginess.

Before she could respond, the mists of their Pensieve world swirled about, and Hermione observed a series of rapid memories that left her feeling exhausted. Memory-Severus seemed to Apparate or Floo everywhere: to Gringotts, to his lab, and back to stores and establishments of ill repute. The constant gathering and brewing, and the exchanges of potions made her dizzy. His record keeping was fastidious to the point of obsession.

The weariness she felt originated from Severus' memory. No wonder all he did was collapse during the weekends; the man had never stopped working for four months straight.

Then, a scene buried within the hectic events of her husband's memories unfolded. Severus had returned via Floo after a thorny meeting with Borgin. As he stepped from the hearth, she heard him catch his breath. She remembered that Saturday; it was nighttime. She had just finished a shower and was resigned to the fact she would be going to bed alone. Through his eyes she recalled wearing a satin dressing gown he had bought her a year ago, and she was drying her hair with a towel.

She watched as her memory-self threw the damp towel on the floor upon seeing him, and her face beamed with a broad grin. "Severus!" she said happily, running to him. Hermione noticed with a hint of a smile that his eyes were fixated on her legs, which the drape of the dressing gown exposed when she ran. The force of her pulling him into hug made the memory blur for a second.

"Hermione," he haggardly said as she snuggled closer to him.

Her fingers started plucking at his buttons in a teasing fashion, and she rubbed her cheek against his and kissed him above the eyebrow. "I've been thinking of you all week," she whispered warmly, and then her voice turned husky and heated. "I want you so badly; make love to me, Severus."

Her hand quickly worked his robe open exposing his chest while her kiss drifted slowly back across his cheek to finally touch his lips with hers. But he stilled her hand firmly and twisted his head slightly away, preventing her impassioned advance.

He shook his head as he responded roughly through his exhaustion. "I can't, not tonight. I need sleep." His arms pushed her gently away, revealing wide brown eyes dumbfounded with disbelief, and her face full of disappointment and embarrassment at his stark rejection.

The memory-Severus moved away from her slowly, plodding towards the bedroom. When he turned, he saw her standing where he had left her, except she was now staring blankly at her toes and had wrapped her arms around herself as if she needed to contain body heat.

This time Severus turned to touch Hermione, who seemed far away. "I hope you realize that if I had not been exhausted to the point of collapsing, I would have granted your desires instantly and probably on the floor," he said smoothly with a slight bit of humor towards the end.

Hermione shook her head. "I felt so badly after that. You know I tried several times with the same results. But eventually I got the message, and I stopped. I'm not that thickheaded," she said quietly, but the simmering hurt was palpable.

"Is that why you thought I betrayed you?"

Hermione looked into his fathomless black eyes, and the words erupted more bitter than she wished. "It was the beginning of my suspicions, yes." She continued on, painfully explaining, "Oh, Severus, with all the excuses and avoidance, I felt you were slipping away, that you didn't love me anymore. I couldn't concentrate on work; all of it started affecting me. God, I felt so alone."

Severus winced while the memory continued to play out, repeating the similar events of brewing, gathering, and traveling to and fro.

However, there was nothing in his memories that confirmed her distrust. "I think I've seen enough. We need to discuss this," she demanded impatiently.

The two removed their heads from the Pensieve, and Severus glanced at his wife, feeling uncertain how to bridge the gulf between them. He busied himself with replacing the memories back into his mind and set the bowl aside.

"Hermione, Severus," they said in unison.

"You first," she offered.

He stared at her intently. "Do you still believe I was unfaithful to you?"

"No, no, I don't, but I…"

Severus interrupted her. "Do… do you still wish to leave?" he asked urgently in a slightly demanding tone.

Hermione sighed and looked at her hands, the fingers entwining themselves. "No, I never wanted to leave, but I thought you didn't love me. I-I never stopped loving you, Severus. But I couldn't bear the pain of living with the constant reminder of what we had shared," she replied wearily, the emotional rollercoaster of the last month taking its toll.

In that very instant, black-robed arms pulled her into a tight unrelenting embrace. Severus clutched onto her and kissed her on top of her head, burying himself in the abundance of curls residing there, while whispering with unconcealed relief, "Thank heavens."

After her initial momentary stiffness, Hermione's body relaxed against his chest. But her frenzied mind spun with thoughts and questions. "I understand you took on all that work to get that house, but what I still want to know is why all the secrecy?" she implored.

Severus eased his hold on her so he could see her face, but he didn't remove his arms from her.

"You desired that house, but you had it set in your stubborn mind it was an impossible dream. I know you link this dream to other wishes you have for the future. You also thought to divert your disappointment and spare any feelings of inadequacy on my part. I assure you I would not have felt that way. What I see are simply obstacles to overcome. The secrecy was part of my selfish desire to give you a pleasant surprise, to give you something worthy of what you have given me. So, I simply investigated on my own and developed a plan to achieve that specific goal. However, the plan proved unstable due to the variable of time; there was always the risk the house would sell. But once I stumbled upon the opportunity with Borgin, I saw a way to mitigate the time variable by accelerating the plan. I also did not want you to associate with the likes of Borgin; you would have certainly hexed him. Nor would you want the press to you catch entering The Satin Flower or the Wynk and Nodd."

Hermione angrily pushed away from him, mad in the way Molly Weasley would yell at her wayward children. "Severus Snape!" she lectured furiously. "You made illegal potions! What would happen if the Aurors caught you, especially with Dung of all people? Oh, the press would have a field day with that and drag me into it as well! It was one thing to make such potions during the war, but I don't need to tell you bored Aurors would give their wand arms for a little excitement and added job security these days."

Severus did not look contrite at all. He smirked, feeling a bit happy that she was angry with him, for it showed she still cared.

His action only inflamed Hermione, and she escalated the tirade. "Wipe that smirk off your face, Severus Snape! I suppose you think it's cute, but I don't. How do you plan on explaining the income? The Ministry tracks Gringotts accounts now. You didn't need to make illegal potions; you could have asked me for help!"

Severus sighed. "The reason you determined the drain on the accounts is because I was not depositing the Galleons into Gringotts, you only saw records of withdrawals. There is no income to explain because there is no record of it. Legal potions are twice the work for half the money," he explained in first year teaching mode.

That tone of voice earned him a hard thump across the nose with a couch pillow. When he looked up, his wife was glaring at him with eyes red from unshed tears. Her voice lost its venom as it shifted to incredulous sadness. "Twice the work, Severus? Your memories indicate otherwise. You were killing yourself, but you were also killing me by ripping my heart out in the process. If you want to surprise me Severus, make one of those wonderful dinners with the wine laced with Amortentia, and yes, I know about that, or get tickets to Rosmerta's winter solstice celebration and dance with me until my feet ache." Hermione's voice trailed off to just a whisper as she shifted her gaze away from black glittering eyes to bury her face in her hands. "But the house…"

His hands rested on her shoulders, and he gently turned her towards him. "Hermione?" he questioned seriously as her large brown eyes scanned his face and she bit her lip in frustration trying to explain.

"Severus, don't you understand? I took a vow. We took a vow when we married to help and trust one another in good times and in bad. As well meaning as your intentions are, I don't need that house to be happy with you. Molly raised an entire family on one Ministry income, and she lived in a modified pigsty! What you tried to do, it was really sweet of you, and I don't want you to think I am ungrateful about the house. But, you… you didn't trust me or our vows… you…"

Her head sagged against him, and her hand pounded on his chest punctuating the words as she poured out her emotions. "You silly, wonderful, misguided, arrogant man, how could you think that this burden was yours alone, or even a burden at all?"

She looked up at him feeling hurt that she had to explain this to him since he now looked unhappy and confused. "This house project would have been so much easier on both of us if you had trusted me. It could have been fun, Severus. We would have worked on it together instead of practically wrecking our marriage and health in the process."

His serious expression went straight to her heart. "Hermione, in my plans I had not considered our marriage as a variable. It has been the one constant I've had for several years. I now realize I should not have taken it for granted."

Now it was Hermione's turn to smirk as she replied with uncharacteristic irony. "Are you trying to tell me that Mr. Snape, the Slytherin of Slytherins, did not consider an angle to a plan?"

Severus shot her a wry smile, and deep inside he felt some relief, though he remained uncertain if she had really forgiven him.

Her head snapped towards the door at the sounds of a half-kneazle yowling in discomfort. "Oh, no, Crooks has been in that cage…" she explained rising off the couch to release him.

Crookshanks bolted out his confinement like his tail was on fire, leaping onto the lap of Severus Snape. The cat ducked under the Potion master's arm, seeking security from his owner-warden. Snape pulled Crookshanks onto his lap, scratching the fur behind the ears until the cat purred loudly. Severus commented dryly, "I think he likes me more than you at the moment."

Hermione stood staring at the odd pair; her husband and cat usually just pleasantly coexisted by ignoring each other. Seized with sudden understanding, Hermione let out a howl riddled with self anger. "God, how could I be so stupid!" she cried.

"Crookshanks… God, he would have known if you had changed. He would have reacted if your real intent was to harm me emotionally or otherwise. I should have remembered this and saved us both a lot a grief," she stated somberly.

Severus set Crookshanks aside and stood, taking quick strides to capture and hold his wife close to him. He stroked her hair, his low voice rumbling quietly as he spoke. "Despite our magic and intentions, we are only human. It seems we both made mistakes, and I have no desire to repeat mine. It is easy for me to forgive your mistakes, Hermione, for my mistake hurt you for a long time, and that alone has hurt me tenfold."

Hermione raised her head off his shoulder to look at her husband. The softness in his dark eyes off set his somewhat taciturn expression. "I love you, Hermione," he whispered, the words slightly catching in his throat. "Can you find in your heart the ability to forgive my idiotic foolishness?" he added with more bite.

Her hand reached up to gently brush away the hairs that always seemed to fall across his face. "I already have," she replied softly.

At that comment he seized the opportunity and kissed her fiercely.

The End

Authors Notes: I sincerely hope you like the response to the SS/HG exchange challenge story you've just read. This novelette is my first long fic, and it was a difficult subject to handle. I've been writing drabbles for over a year and half, and found this challenge incredibly taxing.

I bow low and kiss the hands of my betas with utter gratitude and appreciation.

Fanart1: See the house that Hermione loves at "charmingcottage" on LJ (stupid FFN wont even take unlinked text of links- go to my droxy profile for art links). Thanks to perselus and seaislewitch for giving me permission to link this art and their story associated with it.

Fanart2: The lovely Usagistu/Melanie has kindly granted permission to link art to this fic. Ironic that she did this art not knowing this fic was her gift in the exchange! Her art "Snape and Hermione Sitting" another art can be linked to on my Droxy profile page above (click my name above) and get the art links from my profile page!