The realisation that Dumbledore was truly dead hit Hermione and made her forget her utter exhaustion. Tears started into her eyes as she stared at his corpse and the mourning McGonagall.
"Listen, Hermione," Snape said, his voice so soft that Ron and Harry threw him surprised glances, "it isn't over yet. There are still Death Eaters up in the castle and we'll have to go and get them. You'll have to stay here until we're sure it's save."
Hermione nodded. She was so exhausted she didn't really care, she just wanted to sleep and forget that Dumbledore was dead. She was too sad and tired even to feel much triumph at Voldemort's death. "How's Luna?" she asked worriedly, trying to get a glimpse of her.
"Very much like you," Harry said, "but she'll be fine." He and Ron looked curiously as Snape got out of his robes and spread them next to Hermione. Then he lifted her from the floor and laid her onto his robes, making sure that she was covered with hers. "Try to rest," he said. "It won't take long."
Hermione nodded. "Good luck," she said, smiling at her friends. "And be careful." Suddenly a thought came into her mind. "When you're finished, could you go to my rooms and look after Crookshanks? Malfoy hurt him and I don't know if he's fine."
The three men nodded and got up. Hermione closed her eyes. She didn't mind lying on the hard floor just as long as she didn't have to do anything. She was so tired she couldn't even really worry about her friends anymore. A few seconds later she was fast asleep.
When Hermione woke up she found herself in one of the beds in the hospital wing. She still felt tired but the deathly exhaustion had vanished. Looking at her watch she found that it was a quarter to one in the afternoon.
A weight at the foot of the bed made her look down and she saw Crookshanks who had just got up and was now clambering towards her, purring loudly, his tail erect in greeting. Hermione gasped with happiness and drew him towards her, cuddling him forcefully. She was so glad he was still alive, so glad she was still alive.
It had happened. After all those years the war was finally over. Hermione felt relief, most of all, and terrible sadness because of Dumbledore. Looking around, she saw Luna lying a few beds away from her. She was still fast asleep. Propping herself up, Hermione rang the magical bell which would call Madame Pomfrey. She needed to know if her friends were safe, if everything had gone according to plan.
When Madame Pomfrey came she smiled at Hermione, ignored Crookshanks and made her drink a number of potions to build up her strength before she would answer any questions. "You were lucky," she said, "if Miss Lovegood hadn't joined in as well, you'd be dead now. And even so it was a close call."
"Is everyone all right?" Hermione asked impatiently.
Pomfrey smiled encouragingly. "Yes. They were able to overpower the Death Eaters without anyone getting killed. Remus, Pomona and Miss Weasley were hurt, but not badly." Her face grew serious. "Filius lost an eye to a particular nasty hex, but he's fine."
Hermione gasped at this news but Madame Pomfrey patted her arm reassuringly. "Don't worry, he's taking it very well. And those members of the Order who were responsible for taking care of the Ministry were also successful. It's finally over." She glowed with something like silent satisfaction which was no wonder after years of treating victims of the war.
"Where is everyone?" Hermione went on. "Harry and Ron... and Severus."
Pomfrey suddenly looked at her a bit colder. "They're at the Ministry."
Hermione hadn't missed Madame Pomfrey's reaction. She wouldn't be the only one who was hurt by the fact that Hermione had deceived them about her parents' murder. "I'm so sorry," she said in a low voice. "I hated lying to you all, but there was no other way. I'm sorry."
Pomfrey looked at her silently for a few moments, then nodded slowly. "I know. And I'm glad that Severus didn't betray us after all. I had to patch him up often enough to care for him." She hesitated for a second, then pulled something out of her robes. "One of the house-elves brought this not long ago. It's for you. From Dumbledore."
She needn't have said it. Hermione had immediately recognized the handwriting in which the words 'For Hermione' had been written on the envelope. She felt a terrible lump in her throat and suddenly tears ran down her cheeks. She didn't try to hold them back, but looked at the envelope, wondering what it could be. Slowly she opened it.
To find your parents contact my old friend Felix Fortescue at 21 Waverley Crescent, Edinburgh.
All the best,
Hermione looked up at Pomfrey, her pulse quickening. "It says how to contact my parents," she said. "Can I go?"
The elder woman wore a doubtful expression but then nodded. "If I give you a few more strengthening potions. But you have to promise that you'll only apparate to Edinburgh and straight back again."
Hermione nodded avidly and Pomfrey smiled at her. "Well, then you can go."
About twenty minutes later Hermione, who was still feeling rather shaky, was walking through the empty corridors of Hogwarts and out into the warm summer day. As she stood in front of the great entrance door, looking out over the grounds and feeling the warm wind on her face, she could for the first time really appreciate what had happened. Voldemort was gone, for good. They could live their lives in peace now. Suddenly she laughed out loud. She felt like shouting or singing with joy. The pain at Dumbledore's death was still there, a terrible ache in her heart, but she knew why he had given his life. So that now they could finally start living theirs.
Hermione walked through the grounds smiling and humming. She wished her friends were there but they'd have to wait until she came back from Edinburgh. And Snape... Now they would have enough time to find out where their relationship might go, time without the constant fear that one of them might be murdered any second. When she arrived outside the wards she gave a last, loving look to the dark mass of Hogwarts and then disapparated.
A bit more than an hour later Hermione apparated again, this time to her favourite apparition place near the lake, the place to which she had also apparated one year ago on the day she had started working at Hogwarts. As at that time, she now took her favourite way back to the castle, along the lake which glittered enticingly in the summer sun.
She was terribly tired but had a broad smile on her face. When she had shown up at his doorstep, Felix Fortescue had already known what had happened. Actually it was hard not to know it. As all those years ago when Voldemort had fallen for the first time, the sky was filled with owls, and wizards and witches were celebrating openly on the streets, ignoring the bewildered stares of the muggles.
As soon as he had heard of Voldemort's fall, Fortescue had made sure that her parents had been given back their memories. When Hermione had come to his house he had quickly established a floo-communication-connection to where they were now living in Canada. It had been a joyous and tearful reunion and Hermione had promised to visit them in a few days. Now she wanted to look if her friends were around, and then sleep, preferably for a very long time.
When she had walked for a few minutes, she suddenly saw someone sitting on a bench at the lake. It took her only a few seconds to recognize Snape. Hermione got a bit slower at first but then strode on purposefully. She knew that she had to talk to him eventually and this was as good a time as any.
When she came closer she noticed that something was different. He had shed his usual black robes and wore only a dark shirt with sleeves that went up to his elbows. Quite sensible in this warm summer weather but for Hermione this shedding of his customary 'armour' signalled much more.
"Hello Severus," she said brightly, stopping in front of him.
"Hello Hermione," he replied, greeting her with a small smile. "How are your parents?"
Hermione sat down beside him, scrutinizing his face. He looked tired but calm. "Very well, thanks for asking." She raised an eyebrow. "Are you sitting here by coincidence or were you waiting for me?"
His mouth twitched but he didn't answer, only smiled at her. Suddenly Hermione realized something which had been nagging at the back of her mind ever since she had spotted him. She gasped. "The mark is gone!"
He nodded, a rare open smile transforming his face. "Yes, it is. After the Dark Lord's death it slowly vanished." He held up his arm, turning it and looking at it with an expression of wonder in his eyes, as if he still couldn't believe it. As she had done weeks ago, Hermione reached out her hand and softly touched the now unblemished skin. "I'm so glad for you," she said.
Their eyes locked, but Hermione first wanted to hear what had happened before discussing life-altering issues. "How's Minerva?" she asked.
Snape's face turned grave. "Very sad, as you might expect. She has asked us to meet in Dumbledore's office – which is now hers – at 7 o'clock. And it seems that there will be some kind of celebration afterwards, with bonfire and the like."
He looked not happy about that and Hermione said quietly, "You think it's wrong to celebrate?"
He shook his head. "No, certainly not. It just feels strange, with what happened to Albus…" His mouth twitched in a sad smile. "But as I know Albus it probably was his idea in the first place."
"Probably." Hermione looked at Snape and saw the sadness in his face. "You have to tell me everything," she said to divert him. "I'm so sorry I wasn't there to help you."
Snape shook his head. "You needn't be. You did more than anyone could have asked of you." He paused. "We were lucky that you were willing to sacrifice your life."
Hermione shrugged her shoulders. "I had to do something and I was lucky that Luna was ready to help me. Anyway, what happened after you left the vaults?"
"It was surprisingly easy," Snape told her. "We went up to the castle and I called the Death Eaters. They had a means of communication very similar to the fake Galleons and they came immediately since most of them had noticed that something was happening to their mark. I had taken Remus as a fake-hostage and the others were hidden close-by. When all were gathered, Remus and I suddenly turned on the Death Eaters and the others attacked them as well. They didn't know what had hit them." He smiled grimly. "I suppose you heard what happened to Filius? Luckily he was the only one who was badly injured. It was over quickly."
Hermione looked at him, trying to read his calm expression, and then asked hesitantly. "Was it hard for you? I mean some of them were your friends..."
Snape didn't look away but a flicker of pain crossed his face. "It was something I knew I had to do for many years," he said slowly. "But that didn't make it any easier." He was silent for a few moments. "I don't care about most of them, they've deserved whatever awaits them now. Still, I've grown up with many of them, I know what they once were like and how they turned into Death Eaters... I'm sorry about Narcissa, she's not all bad. And I'm glad that Draco left them early enough."
"Did you hear something from him?" Hermione asked.
Snape shook his head. "Not yet. I hope I will eventually."
They both looked out on the glittering lake for a few moments before Hermione went on. "And how did it go for the rest of the Order?"
"Nobody was seriously harmed," Snape replied. "Arthur, Bill, Charlie and the aurors made sure that the Dark Lord's minions in the Ministry were not able to escape. As you can imagine the Ministry is in chaos now."
Hermione snorted. "Is that something new?" Suddenly a thought hit her. "What about the press? I'd expect them to be swarming around here, trying to get first-hand reports of Voldemort's death."
Snape's mouth twisted. "I don't doubt they would if they could, but Dumbledore made sure that special anti-reporter-wards were set up as soon as he knew that the Dark Lord was coming."
Hermione laughed out loud. The thought of the likes of Rita Skeeter standing just outside the wards, trying unsuccessfully to cross them was deeply satisfying.
"I'll miss him terribly," she suddenly said.
"So will I," Snape replied.
"I know it was necessary," Hermione went on, "and that he was more than willing to die, but that doesn't help, does it?" Suddenly the heavy sadness was back inside her, dimming the brightness of the day and her joy at their victory. "It's strange, isn't it?" she said. "I mean I'm really glad that it's over now, that Voldemort is gone. But at the same time I'm just very sad. And it feels so strange. All those years, the constant threat and worry, and now it's suddenly over."
Snape gave her a wry smile. "Believe me, I know what you mean."
Hermione held his gaze. "I know, it must be even stranger for you." She hesitated, then said quietly, "I'm sure Sarah would be very proud of you."
His face froze for a second, then relaxed slowly. He looked at her with a curious searching expression in his eyes. "I hope she would."
They were silent again and Hermione looked away from him, out into the Hogwarts grounds. They had talked about all the innocent topics, now it was time to turn to what was much more complicated. "Do you remember when I asked you in Germany what you wanted to do after we have defeated Voldemort?" she asked, turning to face him again.
Snape nodded. "And I told you that I didn't know." He paused. "I still don't know. It is...hard to grow accustomed to life without him." He was silent for a few moments, then went on hesitantly. "For over twenty years my life was in some way dominated by him. And that also meant that I always knew what I wanted to do with it. And now he's gone, and I haven't figured it out yet..."
He looked at her intently and Hermione felt suddenly very self-conscious, wondering if she figured in his thoughts about the future in any way. "I suppose now you have enough time to find it out," she said, smiling. "You should take a long holiday."
His mouth twitched. "I suppose I should. How about you?"
Hermione shrugged her shoulders. "Good question. I extended my contract with Anistaphala for another year, but seeing as she turns out to be a Death Eater I don't know if the Ministry will stick to it. I wouldn't mind staying, I like the work and Hogwarts, and as you know there are still a lot of books in the vault." She stopped, unsure how to continue. Snape wasn't much help, either, he just looked at her intently and although his face wasn't the dispassionate mask he had worn for so many years, Hermione didn't know how to interpret it. "Listen, Severus," she finally said, "we need to talk."
His mouth twitched. "Ever the Gryffindor," he said in a teasing tone, "bluntly charging in."
"I can't help it," Hermione replied with a defiant smile and then waited if he would say something.
Snape looked away for a few moments but then turned to face her again, his expression serious. "You're right, we need to talk. Hermione, you know that..."
Voices from further down the lake's shore suddenly drifted towards them and made him stop. When Hermione turned around she saw Harry, Ron and Ginny coming in their direction. Turning back to Snape she gave him an apologetic smile. "I suppose we'll have to talk later?"
Snape's face had changed to not quite the cold mask but a rather bland expression. "I think we will. I'll see you at seven."
As soon as her friends came close enough to discern Snape their behaviour changed subtly, becoming more guarded and inhibited. Hermione wondered if it was because of Snape or because they were angry with her. Probably a mixture of both. She sighed internally. She wasn't looking forward to this conversation.
When they were only a few feet away, Snape got up and gave a curt nod in her friends' direction. "I'll see you later," he said dispassionately and went away.
Hermione stood up, too, and faced her friends. They were standing a few feet from her without saying a word. Hermione tried to catch their eyes but they avoided meeting her gaze. Her heart sank. "Listen," she said to break the uncomfortable silence, "I am terribly sorry. I know that's no excuse but I had to do it. I hated lying to you, I really felt terrible all the time. Can...can you forgive me?"
She looked at them with trepidation. Ron was frowning, Ginny's face was neutral and Harry's unreadable. None of them spoke. Hermione felt her heart sink. "Please, say something," she said quietly.
Harry cleared his throat. "Listen, we know you had to do it... Dumbledore explained everything to us. And we understand. It's just..." he shrugged his shoulders and looked at Ginny.
"It's just that we had hoped you'd trust us," Ginny picked up. She gave Hermione a tentative smile. "We know that there was no other way. But when Dumbledore informed us yesterday before we went down into the vault it still...hurt. I'm sorry, but I think it'll take some time until we get over it."
Hermione nodded slowly, feeling very sad. She knew that her friends wouldn't be able to just forget what had happened, but to see them angry with her hurt terribly. "All right," she said in a wobbly voice, "I suppose that's the best I could hope for."
Suddenly Harry shook his head. "What are we doing here?" he asked, looking at Ron and Ginny. "We shouldn't be angry; we should be happy and grateful that we're all alive." He turned to Hermione and smiled at her. "I'm so glad it's over," he said softly. "And that you all are alive." And he took a step forward and hugged her tightly.
Hermione felt a great weight lift from her heart. After a few moments Ginny and finally even Ron joined Harry, all hugging Hermione and each other. Suddenly Hermione started laughing, for no apparent reason but just because she was so glad she and her friends were still alive. And the others joined in.
"Have you been to see your parents?" Ron finally asked when they had calmed down and separated again.
Hermione looked at him searchingly. He seemed to be the one most hurt by her deception but she hoped that he would forgive her eventually. "Yes," she replied. "It was great to see them again."
"No wonder you didn't want us to hurt Snape," Ron snorted. "We could hardly believe Dumbledore when he told us that he was on our side after all."
"It must have been hard for Snape," Harry said. "And for you." He gave her a shy look. "I'm so glad it's over."
Hermione nodded emphatically. "And so am I. Now tell me exactly what happened."
Ginny, Harry and Ron told her all that had happened ever since her opening the corridors to the library vaults had informed Dumbledore that Voldemort was about to appear. After an hour Ron and Harry, who had to check up on some Ministry business before they could join the evening's celebration, took their leave and left Hermione with Ginny.
"I'm glad you've forgiven me," Hermione said softly after they had sat in silence for a few moments.
Ginny shrugged her shoulders. "I was angry. And disappointed. But what happened yesterday was just greater than such selfish feelings. And Dumbledore made very clear that it wasn't your fault." She smiled sadly. "It's terrible he's gone."
"It is," Hermione said. "Poor McGonagall."
Ginny nodded. Suddenly she gave Hermione a shrewd look. "Speaking about that – is there something going on between you and Snape?"
Hermione felt her heart skip a beat. She hadn't expected Ginny to notice anything but she obviously had. "What do you mean?" she said, trying to sound surprised.
"Come on," Ginny said, smiling mischievously. "There is something between you, isn't it? I'm not blind, you know."
Hermione sighed. "All right. But it's nothing definite. We're not together or so."
"But..." Ginny insisted.
"But... I know this sounds strange, and if you'd told me a year ago I would have said you're nuts... but the fact is I like him. A lot."
The smile had left Ginny's face. "You're serious, aren't you?"
Hermione nodded. "Yes." She grimaced. "I know that's hard to understand."
Ginny snorted, shaking her head. "It certainly is. This is Snape we're talking about!" She shuddered slightly and looked at Hermione with a bewildered expression in her eyes. "But you really like him, don't you?"
Hermione felt a lump in her throat. She had known that her friends would have a hard time accepting her affection for Snape but it hurt nevertheless. "Yes, I do. He's a good man."
Ginny scrutinized her face. "I suppose he is," she said softly. "And does he... does he have feelings for you?"
Hermione shrugged her shoulders, giving Ginny a wobbly smile. "I think so. But we never really got around to discuss it. Actually we were just about to talk when you showed up."
"I'm sorry," Ginny said, a look of dismay on her face. "Listen, Hermione," she went on, taking Hermione's hands. "I might not be able to understand your choice, but when you tell me you're happy with him then I'm glad for you."
"Thanks," Hermione replied, feeling immensely relieved. "Could you do me a favour and not yet tell Harry and Ron? I first have to sort this out with myself and Severus before I break it to them."
Ginny shuddered. "Sure. I'm afraid they won't be happy." The corners of her mouth twitched. "Great Merlin, they'll be so shocked. I can just picture Ron's face…" she giggled and Hermione joined in, relieved at her friend's reaction. Ginny might not be overjoyed but she accepted Hermione's choice and it felt good to have finally told her.
They went back to the castle not long after and Hermione, who was rather tired, lay down a bit before preparing for the meeting in Dumbledore's office and the celebration afterwards. On an impulse she put on the dark blue dress she had worn at Stella's wedding.
When Hermione entered what until the day before had been Dumbledore's office she glanced around searchingly, looking for a new picture. And there it was, surrounded by all her friends, including Flitwick who sported an eye patch and looked like a small pirate. It felt indescribably strange to see the painted Dumbledore beaming at her but Hermione was also overjoyed to know that he wasn't all gone.
"Albus," she said hesitantly. "How are you…hm…feeling?"
He chuckled. "Rather tired, I have to say. How are your parents?"
"Fine, thanks a lot."
Suddenly the painted Dumbledore cast a serious look around at the other bystanders and said, "now, I want to remind you that it wasn't Hermione's idea to deceive you. Please don't hold it against her."
Many faces around her suddenly wore a distanced and closed expression, including Lupin's, and Hermione felt very unhappy. But after a few seconds Lupin nodded. "Albus is right," he said. "We didn't like to be deceived but we know it was necessary. And I suppose we should just be glad that everything is over now and we're still alive."
Hermione gave him a relieved smile. It would take some time until they would really have forgiven her but she was sure that they eventually would.
"And it's of course the same with Severus." Dumbledore went on. Hermione shot a glance at Snape who was standing in his customary corner. He had put on his dark robes again and was looking at his colleagues in the distanced way he had. It was as if the man who had talked to her that afternoon had vanished. He's still holding everyone away, Hermione thought sadly. I wonder if that will ever change. She tried to catch his gaze but when he finally looked at her he only gave her a curt nod, his face dispassionate.
McGonagall now started to speak and Hermione turned to listen to her. She looked older and her face was grey with sadness and fatigue, but composed. "As you all know, we'll have a little celebration with the Order tonight – an explicit wish of Albus. We'll have a bonfire at the shores of the lake. Tomorrow morning at 11 there will be a memorial service for Albus. And I'm afraid that will also be the time when our splendid isolation will have to be lifted." She grimaced. "There doubtless will be many reporters around. After that it's up to you how you want to spend your holidays."
They discussed the memorial service for a little longer until McGonagall told them to go outside and join the other members of the Order for the celebration. Hermione noticed that McGonagall was staying behind, deep in conversation with Dumbledore's portrait.
On their way outside Hermione was looking for Snape but somehow he had vanished. She couldn't help feeling irritated. She had hoped that with Voldemort's death and his vindication Snape would be at least a bit more sociable, but it didn't seem like it. She hoped that it was just a question of time, after all it wasn't easy to overcome behaviour that had served him well for so many years. Shrugging inwardly she joined Harry, Ginny, Ron, Luna, Neville and Padma. Luna looked rather tired as well. When Hermione thanked her profusely she only shook her head lightly. "It was necessary," she said in her dreamy voice. "I am glad I could help."
It was a strange victory celebration. There were a few bursts of exhilaration as they stood around the great bonfire, but mostly their joy was muted by the memory of Dumbledore and all those other people who over the years had lost their lives to Voldemort. The atmosphere was one of bitter-sweet joy and sadness suffused with gratefulness that the war was over and they were still alive.
After a while Hermione left her friends and walked around to talk to all the members of the Order she knew well and to apologize for her deception. They were forgiving, if a little reserved. McGonagall had come down as well and Hermione joined her, feeling strangely shy what to say to her.
"I'm so sorry," she finally said softly.
McGonagall's face was composed and only her bright eyes betrayed her. "Thank you," she said in a low tone. Suddenly a small smile tucked at her lips. "I'm glad I wasn't wrong about Severus after all." She shot Hermione a questioning look. "Perhaps I was not wrong about something else as well?"
Hermione was glad that the dusk hid the blush which had risen on her face. "I don't know, really," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "I thought that you were right, that he has feelings for me. But now it seems that he's avoiding me and I don't know what to make of that."
McGonagall looked at her, pondering. "Don't give up," she said. "Severus has to rethink his life from scratch now, and I suppose he just doesn't know how you fit in." She smiled. "He might be brave enough to face and deceive Voldemort, but I don't know if he's brave enough to face his feelings as well. Just give him time." Suddenly she looked very sad. "If there's a chance of happiness for you, don't miss it."
She turned away and looked out into the night. Hermione's heart ached with pain for the elder woman and on an impulse Hermione took her hand and squeezed it. "I will do my best," she said.
McGonagall just nodded, silent tears running down her face, and Hermione left her to her sorrow. She returned to her friends and they started talking about their plans for the summer. Hermione was evasive, not knowing yet what she would do and if Snape would figure in her plans in any way. Suddenly she had the feeling that someone was watching her and when she turned she saw Snape looking at her from the other side of the bonfire. In his black robes he appeared rather forbidding in the flickering light of the fire.
Hermione excused herself, ignored Ginny's knowing smile, and went to him.
"So you decided to come?" she asked in a teasing tone.
He snorted. "It was Albus' wish. I can't ignore that."
"I'm glad you are here," she said quietly, looking at him expectantly.
His face was hard to read in the flickering light of the fire, but just like in Dumbledore's office it seemed strangely closed. Whatever has happened since the afternoon? Hermione wondered. Why is he drawing back like that?
He looked at her in silence for a few moments. "This dress suits you," he suddenly said.
She smiled at him but he didn't meet her eyes. "Thank you. It's the one I wore at Stella's wedding."
"I noticed." His voice was noncommittal and he just stared into the fire.
"Severus," Hermione said softly, reaching out to take his hand. "Is everything all right?"
"Of course," he said levelly, snatching his hand away. "Shouldn't you be with your friends? I have to talk to Minerva. I'll see you." And he turned around and stalked off into the darkness.
Hermione stood there thunderstruck. This was definitely not going the way she had imagined it would. Suddenly she became conscious of the curious looks that her friends were giving her. Holding back her sadness and worry, she put on a rather forced smile and went back to them.
Snape didn't return to the bonfire. After nearly an hour had passed, Hermione decided that she had to find him and talk to him. Whatever his feelings were, she wanted to know. She went back into the castle and checked the places where she thought he might be but without finding him. Finally there was only one possibility left and Hermione took the way she had gone the day before with Flitwick and two Death Eaters, the way down to the library vaults.
She found him standing close to the spots where Dumbledore and Voldemort had died, his head bowed, lost in thoughts.
"Hello Severus," she said softly, standing in the doorway.
His head jerked up. For a second his dispassionate mask wasn't into place yet and Hermione saw deep sadness. He might even have been crying. But when he now looked at her his face was calm again.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in a flat voice. "Shouldn't you be outside with your friends?"
Hermione left the doorway and went to him, shivering in the light summer dress and thin jacket she was wearing. The books which had fallen out of the shelves in the course of the fight had been put into place again and nothing was left to remind of what had happened the night before. You would have thought that the spot where Voldemort died would be black, or somehow marked, she thought. But it wasn't. The vault looked as if nothing had happened.
"I was looking for you," she said when she stopped in front of him. "And I might ask you the same question. What are you doing here?"
He didn't meet her eyes but looked over her left shoulder to the spot where Dumbledore had stood the night before. "I will miss him," he said. His face stayed impassive but his voice was full of sadness.
"I know," Hermione said softly. Suddenly she was overcome by a wave of emotions for the man in front of her. Helpless affection, worry and the need to touch him, to reach out to him and free him from his self-sought isolation. She took a step forward, not exactly knowing what she would do, but wanting to somehow show him how much she cared for him. Snape however took a step backwards, clearly not wanting her to come any closer.
Hermione stopped. "What's the matter, Severus," she asked in a pressed voice. "Why are you suddenly acting so different to this afternoon?"
He looked at her, his face very tense. "I had time to think," he said slowly. "About what has happened…to us."
Looking at his hard expression, Hermione felt her heart sink. "And?" she asked quietly.
His dark eyes which were strangely wide and bright in his pale face were holding hers. "These were extraordinary circumstances," he said. "It was my fault, of course. I was under considerable emotional pressure. And so were you. I am sorry."
She stared at him, her mind reeling. "Are you saying you are sorry for what happened between us?" she asked, shaking her head in bewilderment.
Snape looked over her shoulder again. "Yes, I am," he said quietly.
Hermione felt as if she were in a bad dream. "But that's ridiculous," she said. "Severus, look at me." He met her eyes but his expression was guarded and withdrawn. "I don't know why you're doing this," she said, her voice thick with emotion. "But you can't deny that there was…some kind of connection between us…some affection…" her voice trailed off. "I'm not sorry for what has happened," she said, nearly whispering.
For a moment his mask slipped. "Hermione, be reasonable," he said quietly.
She stared at him, at his tall and dark figure, so tense and collected. Suddenly a thought hit her and gave her hope again. "You're not saying this because you want to drive me away for some twisted noble reason?" she asked, scrutinizing his expression. It was only there for a second, but Hermione thought she had seen a flicker of doubt and guilt. She was not sure, but she had to take chances now.
Snape didn't answer her question but kept looking away from her. "Please, go now," he said in a flat voice. "There is nothing more to say."
But Hermione knew that now was the time to do what her intuition told her. And if she was wrong, if he really didn't have any feelings for her, at least she would have tried. She took a step forward, getting closer to him.
Snape furrowed his brow in irritation. "What are you doing?" he snarled. "I'd appreciate if you left me alone now." And he took a step backward.
Hermione shook her head. "There is something I wanted to do for a long time," she said, giving him a small smile. "Probably longer than I ever admitted to myself." She took another step forward and when he tried to go backwards once again he found that he couldn't because he had arrived at one of the bookshelves.
"This is ridiculous," he hissed, his dark eyes burning into hers. "Why won't you leave me?"
Hermione shook her head again. "You've been alone long enough," she said softly. She suddenly felt very strange, almost frightened as she stepped even closer. The anger left his eyes and he looked at her in wonder as she reached out with her right hand, put it behind his head and drew him towards her. Their lips met and she kissed him deeply. After a few seconds he responded fiercely, wrapping his left arm around her and holding her close, running his right hand through her open hair. The fear that had held her ever since he had started acting so strangely disappeared and instead Hermione felt only utter happiness.
Suddenly he pulled back. "You shouldn't be doing this," he said, his voice hoarse. The cold mask he had worn was gone and he looked bewildered and troubled.
"And why not?" she asked, stroking the side of his face with her fingers.
Snape drew in his breath. "Be reasonable, Hermione," he said in a pressed voice. "What do you want with me? You could have everyone, you're young, and intelligent, and beautiful. And I am..." he hesitated and pain was visible on his face. "I am tainted," he said quietly. "I've done terrible things. I'm not so...so loving, and innocent and pure as you are... There are dark parts in my past and in my character, aspects of me I'm ashamed of or even afraid. I'm not an easy man to be around."
She looked at him very seriously. "I know," she said simply. "I'm aware of all of this. But it doesn't change what I'm feeling for you." And she kissed him again, tenderly at first and then passionately to show him how much she wanted him.
But after a few moments he pulled back once more. "I am much older than you," he said roughly.
"Very true," she replied with a smile and kissed him again.
This time he didn't break the kiss for a long time, but break it he eventually did. "But your friends hate me," he said quietly. He paused, then went on. "I saw how they looked at me this afternoon, when they spotted you with me."
Hermione felt a painful stab. So that was probably what had made him rethink their relationship. "I'm afraid they won't be…happy," she said and Snape snorted. "But they'll learn to accept it, eventually." She held his gaze and took his hand and when he finally nodded, still rather unconvinced, she kissed him very tenderly.
When that kiss had ended, however, Snape was still looking at her with disbelief in his eyes. "But why do you want me?" he asked quietly.
She gave him a mischievous smile. "Because you're such a good kisser."
He laughed out loud and Hermione joined in, happy to see him laugh like that. When he had fallen silent again she looked at him earnestly. "Listen, Severus. I have thought about this for a long time – believe me, I had time enough. And I have made up my mind. But if you tell me that you do not have any feelings for me then I can accept that."
She looked at him, tense with fear of what he might say. He raised his hand and brushed a lock of hair away from her face. "You know that I love you," he said simply, holding her gaze. "Even if it took me some time to admit it." He was quiet for a while, tracing the lines of her face with his fingers. Finally he went on hesitantly. "I eventually had to admit to myself that I liked your company. That I liked you. But then for a long time I couldn't believe that you could have any feelings for me. And when it seemed that you did I was…happy. You were the best thing that had happened to me for very many years. You…you gave me hope that there might be a life after the war for me." He nearly whispered now. "And I can't believe that I'm lucky enough not to have driven you away."
Hermione snorted. "Not because you didn't attempt to do so." Tears of joy had come into her eyes at his words and now she buried her face at his shoulder. "I'm so happy," she said, holding him close. "So happy."
"So am I," he whispered in her hair.
When she pulled away after a few minutes he suddenly gave her a worried look. "You must be cold. I shouldn't have kept you down here, I'm sorry I was so inconsiderate."
Hermione shook her head. "Don't worry, I'm fine." Holding his gaze and smiling at him she slowly made to unbutton his robes. "You on the other hand must be quite warm. You won't need your robes in the summer," she said mischievously, running her fingers over the cloth of his thin shirt, feeling his warm body beneath it.
He drew in his breath, then kissed her passionately, his fingers caressing her bare back and shoulders beneath her jacket. Hermione felt an enjoyable tingling sensation. This is going to be so good, she thought with a pleasant shiver. So good. But then she pulled away again. "Let's go up to the bonfire," she said.
Snape looked at her for a few moments, then nodded. "Will you visit me afterwards?" he asked with a small smile, hope and uncertainty in his eyes.
Hermione's heartbeat quickened and she gave him a short kiss. "I definitely will," she whispered in his ear.
He chuckled, then said "Let's go," and they left the vault together.
Well, that's it! Thanks to all of you who have stuck to this story until the end and special thanks to those who have left a review.
It was quite a lot of work but I enjoyed it immensely.
Even though the story is now finished I am of course glad for every comment you have.
And I'm curious: If you happen to also have read my second story, "If the choice were mine to make", which one did you prefer? And why?