The first one dabbed at her eyes. "Terrible, just terrible. What a waste..."
"I still find it hard to believe that we were betrayed in such a manner. How awful for you, Minerva." The second one stood tall, her silver hair pulled into two long severe braids that coiled around her head like a crown.
"I've been such a fool. How could I have been so blind for so long?" The third one did not cry, she had far too much Gryffindor pride for that. She drew her tartan cloak around her. St. Mungo's waiting room was always cold, for some unfathomable reason. The tea from the volunteer witch's cart was very welcome.
The first one said kindly, "You weren't to know, Minerva. He fooled all of us for so long."
"Thank you, Pomona. But it was my job to know, and I failed. Look what it's cost us, that fine witch and wizard lying in there like the dead..."
The second one unbent enough to take her hand. "He had us all fooled. I won't say we aren't to blame, but you certainly do not bear the responsibility alone. We all saw exactly what we wanted to see."
"And there's the truth in a nutshell, isn't it, Aurora? I suppose we live with it and do the best we can from here on out. The war is over. Now we care for the casualties...and mourn the dead."
The three professors waited together in the chill room, with its overstuffed couches. The volunteer witch with her cart, eternally mother to this room of ever-changing pale, frightened faces, poured more tea to drive back the cold.
A door opened, admitting a fourth witch. This one wore crisp linen uniform robes that admitted her deeper into St. Mungo's confidences than her three friends could go. "I've spoken to their healer. It doesn't look good. There are unmistakable neurological signs of Post-Cruciatus Syndrome but this catatonia is something new. Even when patients have been Crucioed into madness, well, we all know poor Frank and Alice. They're textbook cases, unfortunately."
Minerva McGonagall set her guilt and sorrow aside as useless. "What do we do now?"
"They're to be transferred into long-term care. They cannot benefit from St. Mungo's any longer."
"Neither of them has anyone, nor any money that I know of," Pomona said. "What will become of them now?"
Minerva said decisively, "We'll bring them home, that's what. Hogwarts will take care of our own. At the very least, it's payment of our life debts. The truth is, it's simply an honor, after all that they've done for the wizarding world."
So it was that Poppy set aside a small, sunny room with two beds in Hogwarts' hospital wing. Care for the two was simple, really, spells morning and evening that cared for their needs and provided nutrition, and someone had to turn them every two hours to prevent bedsores. The house elves were capable of most of it, but still often Poppy treated them herself. They seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Poppy Pomfrey hoped that was true.
The red-haired young man lifted his glass awkwardly. The previous glasses he had put away had as much to do with it as the fact that he gripped it with his left hand. He had lost his right arm, and very nearly his life, to the venom of the serpent he had beheaded. But he raised the glass nonetheless, drinking to the memory of his best friend and his sister, together in death, as they had never been allowed to be in life. At least they had taken that bastard Voldemort with them, may whatever was left of his soul rot in hell for all eternity.
He drank then to his other best friend and her lover. It wasn't a toast to their memory, because technically they still breathed. But they sure weren't present in this world.
At least the man who had brought them to this state, the man whom he had trusted above all others, was rotting where he belonged also--a six by ten cell on an unplottable rock in the North Sea. If Ron had just figured it all out a little sooner maybe they could have been saved.
"Bring me another, Tom, and this time, make it the double I'm paying for!"
"I have made them doubles, Ron. If there's one thing I can tell you with all certainty as a bartender, it's that sorrows can't be drowned because the bloody buggers can swim like fishes. The bar's closed. Go upstairs and sleep it off."
"Had all the pieces, I did, Tom. Just couldn't see it fast enough. I could've saved them if I'd just figured it out faster. She wasn't for me, but she could have been happy."
Tom shook his head. "Come on, lad, let's find you a room. We'll talk about it more in the morning when you're sober, and then I'll get you home to Molly."
"I had a really weird dream last night. Someone was crying and begging me to wake up, but it felt like I was awake."
"Clearly this is not right. We have all that we could ever need, yet we are completely alone. There is not even a house elf. Can you offer me one logical reason why we should not simply walk beyond the wards and apparate to Hogwarts?"
"No. Yet the very idea terrifies me."
"Indeed. I don't know about you, but I refuse to be ruled by some nameless terror without at least trying to find out what's happening."
"What's the last thing you remember before waking up here?"
"I was in my classroom, going over the syllabus for next year. I recall that I had just flooed the final grades to Minerva. Then..." He paused to think about it. "I'm certain the Headmaster came in. After that...Hermione, I am sure that there was more. I must have been Obliviated."
"That confirms my suspicions," Hermione said. "This makes no sense. Why would someone have gone to the trouble to Obliviate us--selectively, when they clearly could have blanked us both--then left us here--?"
"Indeed, why not, here where we can live out our lives in comfort, but in total isolation?" He slammed his fist on the table. "Think! What were the terms of our agreement with Dumbledore, the day we discovered that we were soul mates?"
"We agreed that we would complete the bond then rather than waiting until after I graduate, so that you could pass information freely back to the Order without risking your cover by meeting with a contact. In return, he'd fix things so you wouldn't get sacked and I wouldn't get expelled after the war when everyone found out. Well, I don't believe I've been expelled! Dumbledore did this to us?"
Grimly, Severus said, "He was responsible for the Obliviate, of that I am sure. Only two people could have done that to me. The Dark Lord would not have left us alive. As for this, Dumbledore made it possible for me to do thisto us! We are not in a real place, Hermione. This is a mental construct, a shielded place within my mind where we are protected from the outside world."
"Then how do we leave it and wake up?"
"Break through that barrier and face whatever reason that I had to lock us in here in the first place. That will be easier said than done, by far."
"You must have been called before Voldemort, and--oh, gods. But then why can't I wake up and draw you to safety with me? There are no anti-apparation wards between us."
"Indeed, there are not. Logically, then, either you are no longer within Hogwarts' wards, or I have been brought to you."
"So either you are no longer in Voldemort's hands, or possibly we both are. Hmm, comforting thought, that."
"It would explain why I locked us within this fortress. I have always had a similar refuge of last resort at my own disposal, should I have found my situation completely untenable, but I would not have brought you here as well without a very good reason."
"I suspect that my begging you to do so may have been a good enough reason, under certain circumstances," she replied.
He nodded. "Every other time this year that I have attracted the Dark Lord's displeasure, your very presence in our link was enough to carry me through. Had you been safe in Hogwarts, I would not have...I would never have allowed you to become trapped within my mind."
"Then for the moment we must assume that part of the Obliviated memory concerns why we both were in immediate mortal danger, with no reasonable hope of rescue. I think we can both agree that was the only circumstance in which we would have taken such extreme measures. Therefore, it follows that Dumbledore was involved with our capture. He betrayed us into Voldemort's hands."
Snape ordered, "Stop saying his name, here of all places! It weakens my defenses against him. We cannot be sure we are not still his prisoners."
Hermione nodded. "I'm sorry. You should have explained that to me sooner, I would have stopped."
He smirked. "Had you not melted so seamlessly into our world, I might not forget so easily that you were born in another."
Hermione gave him an exasperated little smile. Even when she did get a compliment out of him, it was always delivered with a generous serving of sarcasm. "Now the question is, how do we find out whether we're still prisoners? Because if we are, I think the best thing for the Order is for us to stay here, no matter how Dumbledore was involved in it."
"Agreed. I will not endanger the cause, no matter how determined I may be to kill that traitorous old bastard at the first opportunity."
"Can you tell if...he is trying to get through your shields? I find it difficult to believe that he would not be doing so."
"I can sense no drain on my energy levels, and his assault on my shields would be causing a significant one, I assure you. It is possible that I have tricked him into believing that we are in the same state as the Longbottoms, and therefore useless to him."
"True, but then why would he not have simply disposed of us? Umm--unless he has, and we're ghosts here."
"Unlikely. Like most spells, the construct should have ended when we both were dead. You very well could be, however. Only I would have to still be living to maintain the construct."
Hermione said, "This just keeps getting better and better."
"He would not have disposed of us if he wished to use us against the Order. That is why the Longbottoms are still alive, after all."
"Then maybe we're in beds right down the hall from them."
"That is another distinct possibility."
"Is there any way we can get an idea of our physical condition without breaking the wards? There obviously is a connection if the whole thing disappears when we die."
"To the best that I can determine, I have an adequate level of magical ability. That would tend to indicate a reasonable state of health as well."
Hermione looked down. "It could be that he couldn't break through, so he's waiting us out."
"Why would Dumbledore have damned us to this?"
Snape said, "I believe that we were necessary losses to him. Undoubtedly he wished to avoid the scandal that he fears would result if it became known that he prostituted a student under his protection."
"Yes, I suppose he did see it that way. How could he have been so blind?"
"Other people are not truly people to him. He does not see anyone as his equal. We are more like little children, or pets--his to control and manipulate but not autonomous beings in our own right. In that, he is not unlike the Dark Lord. I have always known the danger to myself. There are so many reasons why it will be better for him to have me out of the way when the war is over. I never thought he would turn on you as well. In that, I failed you and I can only beg your forgiveness."
"I believed in him too. When I lost my parents, I wanted to believe in him. I was a naive little idiot!"
"Hermione, there is no point in recriminations, now. We have two choices. The first is to remain as we are until our bodies finally break down and we die. The other is to try to waken, with all the risks that involves."
"We need more information."
Severus nodded. "We need to explore the wards. Hermione, there is something that you must understand. If we do decide to breach the wards and try to waken, we will relive a great deal of whatever we experienced to force us in here. There was clearly some indeterminate period between the Obliviate and our retreat."
"Let's see what we can find out first, before we start worrying," Hermione replied.
Their small cottage sat in the middle of a field, circled by a ward about 100 yards away. "Severus, what is this place?"
"I have no idea. My 'safe place' is something entirely different. This must have some meaning to Albus. When we catch him you can ask him, before I wring his bloody neck."
Hermione said, "You'd better catch him before I do."
"Mind, that's stinging nettles."
Hermione stopped, and watched where she put her sandaled feet. "Why would he put nettles here?"
"Good question, nothing here should harm us. But then he did design the place to keep us in."
"Without making us suspicious at the same time..."
"Too right. Give me some room here. If I set off something nasty, I don't want you getting caught in it."
"Err, Severus, you're certain you're the primary here? If so, then if I cut the wrong wire, you can probably pull me out of the way. I doubt the other way around is likely to work. I've had a hell of a time manifesting anything, and that must have been with you actively allowing me to do whatever I like."
He didn't like it, but he nodded and backed off a couple of paces. Hermione transformed her sandals into trainers and poked at the nettles with her toe. Instantly the whole patch started to writhe and lash at her. She leapt back. Severus drew his wand and burned a clear path through them.
He staggered and Hermione barely caught him. "Severus, what--"
"They aren't nettles, of course, Hermione. Each of them is tied to a particularly bad memory." In hindsight, he shouldn't have burned through so many at once.
"Do you need a rest?"
"I don't trust that trap not to regenerate itself. The construct will attempt to restore itself when my attention turns to something else."
Hermione nodded and they went on.
Poppy Pomfrey was just finishing charming a clean set of sheets onto Hermione's bed when she heard a sound from behind her. Severus moved in his sleep, in some sort of distress. Before she could shake her wand out of her sleeve and cast a diagnostic charm, the episode had passed.
The diagnostic spell startled her. With powerful wizards and witches, she expected a certain amount of uncontrolled magic when they weren't in control of themselves. Other than protecting herself if she had to, she didn't think much about it. This was very controlled.
She rushed to the fireplace in her office and grabbed a handful of floo powder. "Minerva's office!"
She stuck her head through. "Minerva, something's happening. Come down here!"
A small tabby cat bounded through and transformed to the Headmistress. "Poppy, what's wrong?"
"I think they're trying to break out. Severus just tried...something...I'm completely out of my element here. Do we have another Legilimens working here?"
"No, Poppy. There's no one anywhere near Severus' level anywhere, not that I know and trust anyway. What about you, is there anyone that you know at St. Mungo's?"
"Know, yes; trust, no. Why do you think I got them out of there as soon as I could?"
Minerva nodded. "It's up to them, then."
"They won't let us down," Poppy replied. She transfigured a comfortable chair. If all she could do was support her patients while they fought their way back, then she would be here to do that for as long as it took.
The wards began to crackle with energy when they drew near. Hermione said, "That almost looks like..."
"If you are thinking it looks like a lightning ward, it looks exactly like that. And that certainly was what Dumbledore intended. We need to be very careful from here on out. Before, he was warning us to turn back. One slip here could be fatal."
Hermione asked, "What choice do we have? We can't survive in a coma indefinitely, even if we are lying safely in a hospital somewhere."
"Yes, we could. This is one instance where medical care in the wizarding world is ahead of the Muggle equivalent. If you wish to turn back, we can do so, and live out our time here. I leave the choice to you."
"I am not the only one involved! Severus, do not put your life in my hands without at least giving me some idea what your decision would be if I were not involved."
"I wouldn't take the risk," he said. "If I am still a prisoner, I could break under torture and betray those whose safety depends on my silence."
"I wouldn't take the risk blindly, either. But there has to be some damn way to find out what's going on six inches from our bloody faces."
"I wonder if you have a link with anyone other than me? Potter or Weasley, perhaps? Have any of you ever had any sort of a sense that another was in danger that later turned out to be true?"
She shook her head. "We always seemed to get into it at the same time," she laughed. "My parents and I had been growing apart for years, really." That admission hurt, that she had never mended the rift before they died. "Professor McGonagall--but are we really a hundred percent sure she wasn't in it with Dumbledore?"
That obviously was the last thing Hermione wanted to believe, and Severus found that he doubted it as well. "Probably not. Everything else aside, she isn't the world's most skilled liar. Let's go back to the cottage to think this through. If we decide to try to contact anyone, we need to word the call very carefully to be sure it is that person's choice whether or not to come to us. It would be very easy for someone else to get caught here with us."
Getting back to the cottage was no trouble at all. The nettles made a path for them.
Hermione said, "Dumbledore must have salved his conscience with the idea that we could be happy like this."
"Of that I have no doubt. I'm surprised we aren't up to our eyeballs in sherbert lemons. He must think we are so wrapped up in each other that nothing else in the world matters to us."
"It was his big damn idea in the first place! If he'd left it up to us, we would have waited until I was out of school! Even if I was over eighteen before anything started--an adult in the Muggle world as well as ours!"
"It should be clear to you by now that he doesn't think the way normal people do," Snape replied, with all his usual sarcasm.
"I guess we should have pissed and moaned about how awful the world was treating us," she said.
"In hindsight, that may well have helped."
Poppy bent over Hermione's motionless body and cast a series of spells to exercise her muscles. "I don't understand why, when they're showing all the same symptoms otherwise, Hermione's muscles are showing signs of atrophy at a such an accelerated rate compared to Severus."
Minerva asked, "What's different?"
"That's the question, isn't it? Minerva, who was it that trained Severus as a Legilimens? Was it Albus?"
"No, it was Horace Slughorn."
"We're going to have to trust someone. Do you think we can trust him?"
"I believe so. I think he knows better now than to ever betray me, and so do a lot of other people."
Madame Pomfrey pronounced, "Finite Incantatum!" Hermione's legs straightened and gently came to rest with a rolled-up towel under her ankles. "I'm off to send an owl to Horace, then."
"Hermione, you said you dreamed someone was weeping over you and begging you to wake up."
"You should not have been dreaming at all, since this is a sort of dream state. What we perceive as sleep is actually a deeper level of unconsciousness that occurs when we can no longer sustain that level of mental imagery."
She looked up. "That would be when we would be most susceptible to some trick."
"Yes, it would. It would also be when you would be most aware of anything happening in the vicinity of your body. Did you recognize the voice?"
"No, it was distant and muffled--by the wards, no doubt."
"I would like to set a charm to alert us both if it happens again. If this is some trick of the Dark Lord's, I probably would recognize it as such."
"Of course." Hermione was suddenly glad that lightning ward was there. It would be better for her to kill herself trying to get through it, than to bring it down and let Voldemort get at them. "Severus, what if You-Know-Who manages to break through the wards? Is there anything else we can do?"
"There is one last resort," he admitted. "I could end us both with the killing curse. I am certain that we would be condemned to a ghostly afterlife if I did that, but it is better than the alternative."
"If it comes to that, I'm not afraid, as long as we're together."
Horace Slughorn examined both patients carefully. "The link is still there, but this is decidedly odd. Hermione's spirit is not within her body. I have never seen anything like this before. It seems that she and Severus have both taken refuge behind his shields. It's certainly beyond my skill to break through. It's odd, though, if this is Severus' doing it certainly is nothing like the way he configured his shields when I was teaching him. People typically don't change the way they visualize their shields unless they discover some fundamental flaw in them. He had none, and he knew it."
Minerva said, "What, then?"
"Someone else created that construct. I'd stake my life on it."
"Thank you, Horace."
"Gods forgive me for even bringing this up, but it is likely that we could save Hermione by sacrificing Severus."
Minerva said flatly, "Only if you want the next thing you hear from her to start with Avada, and don't think for an instant that the two of us could protect you from her."
Poppy said, "I agree, but that isn't the point. They're bonded soul mates. One of them won't outlive the other by more than a few minutes."
"It was Dumbledore, wasn't it? Until I saw this, I never really believed he was guilty."
Minerva's expression lost all emotion. "Oh, yes, Horace. Albus is guilty. He admitted as much to me before they took him off to Azkaban."
"Why? Severus served him faithfully for twenty years to make up for the mistakes of his youth. Why would Albus do this? Was it some delayed revenge for Lily and James? But surely that had nothing to do with Hermione."
Minerva shook her head. "He wouldn't tell me why. I certainly have no insights into his character, Horace. I loved the man for sixty years and I never once suspected he was capable of anything like this."
Their second exploration of the wards that imprisoned them was much more meticulous than the last time. Of the two of them, Hermione was the curse breaker. Bill Weasley had taught her that most people's "careful" was "reckless" where curse breaking was concerned. Over the last year, she had become a formidable Occlumens, but this was far beyond her. Working in tandem at that level of concentration was exhausting. It was like teasing back the layers of an onion with a cat's whisker. She found three separate levels of traps that would collapse inwards, creating an instantly fatal feedback loop, unless all of them and the ward itself were brought down simultaneously.
They didn't relax until they had retreated to the cottage. Hermione said, "Damn, but he's good. Have you got any idea how to bring that down?"
"Blast through the whole thing in one go, and Merlin help us if we aren't strong enough to do it," he said. "There's no other way to get to all four layers at once."
"I think so. Dumbledore underestimated you in the worst possible way, and I doubt he ever even considered that the two of us would learn to work so seamlessly together. One of us will cast with both our power behind it. Still, there is a considerable risk. If we falter in the slightest, we will have no second chance."
"That damn fool. You've been balancing on a knife's edge for twenty years! You won't slip now." Her confidence was absolute.
"The question still remains whether we should make the attempt."
Hermione said, "We still need more information first."
"We need to rest first," Severus said.
"Show me how I can help you. I know you're trying to come back to us, but you've got to tell me what to do. This isn't anything I learned at St. Mungo's. I can keep you alive, but that isn't the same thing as living. You've got a good eighty or a hundred years ahead of you. Don't waste it in this little room if there's anything at all I can do to help. I believe you can hear me. Just give me some kind of a sign."
Both Severus and Hermione were drawn back to full awareness.
"That isn't the Dark Lord, I am certain of it."
Hermione repeated, "St. Mungo's? A healer?"
"Hermione, that's Poppy Pomfrey!"
"Are you sure?"
"I am nearly certain!"
"If you're wrong...how fast can you get that AK off?"
"Then let's go for it," Hermione said, "All or nothing."
He agreed, "All or nothing."
Once the decision was made, it felt like a weight had been lifted off their shoulders. They settled back down to rest. Tomorrow was going to take everything they had.
Once again, they walked down to the wards. Hermione focused on her husband, and dropped all her defenses, giving him all her magical power. He focused everything into one massive blast. For a moment, he didn't think it was going to be enough--then the wards fell apart. They waited together for the assault they both half-believed was coming, but nothing happened.
A narrow path led into a dense, dark forest. "Is this your imagery...?" Hermione asked.
"No. But I do know these memories have not been Obliviated. I have apparently quite thoroughly repressed them. We will very likely discover yours as well. Remember, Hermione, whatever we encounter is in the past. We will have to deal with it...eventually...but not all at once, and not necessarily today."
Hermione pointed out, "Whatever it is, we may have run like hell from it, but we've survived it once already."
Severus thought, "You always were the most ruthless of the three of you."
She laughed. "At least you didn't say the most Slytherin."
"That goes without saying." He had forgotten that he didn't have to push surface thoughts out to her, here. He held her close. This might be the last time for a while that they could simply enjoy each other's embrace. Then, side by side, they walked into the forest with their heads high and their eyes wide open.
Minerva wrung out a cool cloth and put it on Hermione's forehead. "Poppy, what's happening? I'd swear they were being tortured all over again."
Poppy replied, "There's nothing medically wrong with them. These symptoms are a manifestation of something they're experiencing within themselves. To them, it's real, and their physical bodies react accordingly. I've read their charts from St. Mungo's, so I have some idea of what we might expect. We can help them, Minerva, and we will, but they have to fight their way back to us on their own."
"But that's what they're doing?"
"I believe that absolutely."
Minerva gave Hermione's hand a squeeze. "Well, then, you two do what you have to do, and we'll take care of things on this end."
Poppy put a steadying hand on Severus' shoulder as he reacted to some torment of which she knew nothing. "Yes, that we will."
They escaped from a drawn-out round of Crucio, and the shadowy cellar of Malfoy Mansion gave way to the depths of the forest once again. Both of them crashed to their knees on the stony ground beneath the huge, gnarled tree that had contained that memory.
Severus cursed Albus long and hard for this riotous imagery, with each memory contained within some sort of growing thing. He much preferred his rows on rows of neatly organized and labeled drawers, the memories contained in pensieve vials within. He wondered how long it would take him to re-impose order on this chaos. His curses took a much darker turn when he realized Hermione also had that effort ahead of her.
Unbidden came the thought that no one would care enough to help Albus make some sort of sense of his own tangled wilderness. How many years he must have suffered in order to be able to reshape their mental landscape into this shadow of his own?
An aftershock every bit as severe as the ones he'd suffered in real life burned through every nerve in his body. They weren't going anywhere for a while. He decided not to waste any more pity on Albus Dumbledore. The old man wasn't too far gone to know the difference between right and wrong. "Lie down a while, Hermione, there's nothing we can do but wait it out."
She rested beside him. They wanted the solace of each other's arms, but she instinctively feared that any contact now could set off another round of aftershocks.
He put his arm around her and said, "Any physical contact could. We are not in the real world, remember!"
"Yes--yes--but it felt too damned real!"
"That it did. But we know the ground rules now. I hope we can avoid the worst."
They rested for a while, until they felt strong enough to go on. They tried to stay away from the trees, picking their way along the dark, winding path. Occasionally, though, there was no way past a tangled thicket except to push their way through.
The next one they found was from Hermione's point of view, and Amycus Carrow was molesting her. Severus saw himself through her eyes, finally ending the episode with a wandless impotency curse. He remembered how helpless he had felt. Nothing they could have done to him was as bad as seeing the shame and pain in her eyes. His interference earned him several lashes with a fiery whip that sprung from the Death Eater's wand, but he remembered how little he had cared about that at the time.
Severus managed to control his own raw fury and pull away from the memory. He drew her out of it with him. "Hermione! It's already happened and it's over! For all we know the bloody bastard is dead by now. Listen to me. Concentrate on me. It's over. It's over."
After what seemed an eternity she dragged herself back to him, then cried in his arms for a long while after that. "Oh, gods, Severus, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."
"What, for fuck's sake, are you sorry for? You did nothing wrong! You have nothing--NOTHING--of which to be ashamed!"
"I don't want to be...damaged goods."
"No one goes through a war without being damaged goods in one way or another. You will put it behind you and live your life. I am not foolish enough to tell you that you will live as though none of this has happened to you. But you will go on from it. There will be sunrises and sunsets. You will learn and you will laugh, and doubtlessly you will go the Three Broomsticks with your foolish Gryffindor friends and come home to me pissed as a newt. I promise you that one day, perhaps not tomorrow or even the day after, but one day, you and I will make love and you will not spare a single thought for Amycus Carrow. I know you will do this because in my time, I have."
Hermione gathered all her courage and got to her feet. For a long moment she looked back on the thicket of grasping branches that represented her humiliation, then she turned away and said roughly, "Let's go. We've wasted enough time here."
That was the worst. There were more terrors to be endured, but after that, they were able to keep focused on the present instead of the past. Eventually the forest of madness gave way to an expanse of blank white that represented the memories Albus had Obliviated. It was no more than half a day.
Beyond that, they entered the plain gray room that was the construct Severus allowed others to see when another Legilimens contacted him. They could see the pathway for Hermione's spirit to return to her own body. They had won.
Dawn was lightening the room's high windows when they began stirring. A weary Minerva gently pushed Hermione back to her bed. "You're safe now," she assured them quietly. "You're in the hospital wing here at Hogwarts."
"I'm here." His voice sounded awful in his own ears. He wondered if he'd been screaming.
Hermione asked, "Professor McGonagall, could you fill in the blanks?"
"Perhaps we can do that for each other. I suspect we each know half the story. But it's better if we let Poppy look you over first."
Severus said, "I suspect we are quite well rested, Madame. Dumbledore is responsible for our current condition, is he not?"
"Aye," Minerva said, in a rough brogue that betrayed her emotions. "T'was Ron Weasley who figured out where ye'd gone and who'd sent ye. It was supposed to look like you'd been captured for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were supposed to find out about it too late. You would have been heroes and Albus' machinations with your soulmate bond would likely never hae come t'light. Instead, Tom got the whole damned Order and the DA right down his throat, and Severus, Draco Malfoy had your Slytherins ready to do something from the inside. They struck when we attacked. It was a complete bloody shambles for Voldemort." She fell silent, remembering.
Poppy went on, "Oh, Hermione, I'm so sorry, but Voldemort took Harry and Ginny with him. Ron lost an arm but he lived. Kingsley Shacklebolt is Minister for Magic now. We lost Fred Weasley, and poor little Colin Creevey. Greg Goyle took a killing curse for Draco. Mundungus Fletcher died, as well as some fifty others. But the war's over now."
"What happened to Albus?"
"He's in Azkaban and he won't be getting out," Minerva spat. "The world will never forgive the way he used you and threw you aside. He's mad as a hatter, or he'd have been shoved through the veil along with most of the Death Eaters who didn't go down fighting. Merciful Brigit, we thought we'd lost the two of you as well."
Hermione said, "We're not that easy to get rid of."
Severus asked, "What's to become of us now?"
Minerva said, "Whatever you want, lad. Tom's dead and Albus is locked away. You're no longer bound to either of them. Of course, you've a position here at the start of the new term, if you're well enough, but don't think you have to take it if you'd rather do something else. For now, get well, come to terms with it all, and then you'll be able to decide what you want to do."
Hermione asked, "How long--what's today's date?"
"It's the fifth of August."
"The fifth of--Merlin, we've lost two months."
Poppy said, "Yes, and gained the whole rest of your lives."
"Harry's dead? And Ginny?"
Poppy ushered Minerva out of the room to give her some time to grieve with only her husband there to see it.
Minerva said, "We should tell everyone."
Poppy said, "We should do no such thing until they figure out which way is up! They don't need the excitement just yet. Let them decide who to tell first."
"Yes, you're right, of course."
A week later, the news of their recovery had spread and the excitement had time to settle down. Hermione had spent an afternoon talking sense to Ron, who had returned to Molly all the better for seeing her alive and well. Crowds of people who had shunned Severus before now fell over themselves to apologize for their behavior. Some of them, like Minerva and the others who had put themselves in harm's way to rescue them from Voldemort, he forgave without hesitation. Others who thought they had a use for his notoriety got the sharp side of his tongue. But eventually something else made the headlines and they were left in peace.
Late one evening the two of them walked down by the lake. The black water lapped peacefully at the shore. Hermione asked, "What are our options?"
"It seems, in spite of what Albus told you, your parents provided well for you. You will easily be able to afford to go to university if you prefer that to an apprenticeship somewhere. I will be teaching potions again this year. Minerva would have given me the DADA position, but she would never have been about to find another potions master in a year. Horace plans to stay retired for good this time. So Lupin will be returning to teach DADA. Now that Voldemort is dead, the curse on the position should be broken. I think I will stay, at least until you finish your education. Now that Minerva is Headmistress, I don't think I shall despise it so much. What do you want to do now?"
She smiled. "I had rather thought to seek an apprenticeship, if I can find a potions master willing to put up with a bossy frizzy-haired know-it-all."
"There are few potions mistresses. Having babies gets in the way, if that is what you want. It is too dangerous for a pregnant woman in the laboratory; too many ingredients can cause a miscarriage."
"Then maybe I should do that first. Once, maybe. Two children, at the most."
"That would be sensible, I suppose," he answered, in that silky tone that still sent shivers down her back and probably always would.
She turned to watch the sunset over the castle. "For all of my years here...we were caught between the lies of two madmen. Harry never had a chance. Ron will never be the same and neither will I. Still, after everything, it feels like home."
"It has been our home, and will be. We will help Minerva rebuild the school's reputation. Maybe the next time, without Albus trying to choreograph everything, we will see the Dark for what it is before it gets its hands around our throats."
"I wonder why we ever had it in our heads that the enemy of evil had to be good."
"Because that's what people want to believe, I suppose. I don't know if there even is a greater good--not in the manner that Albus made a bloody idol of it, anyway. There were two damned Dark Lords and we never even saw one of them for what he was until it was very nearly too late. I shudder to think what would have happened if Weasley hadn't seen through him."
"Draco and his lot would have found a way to get information to the Order, and Voldemort would have been stopped. Dumbledore would have had to keep his rule as the power behind the throne fairly benign or the Order would have found him out just as they did anyway. The Light always finds a way."
"So long as I have my common-sense Slytherin to keep my feet on the ground, I can afford to be, can't I?"
"I suppose you can, at that," he said, and together they walked up the hill to the castle's waiting shelter.
A/N: For Lisa, who wanted a SSHG darkfic with evil!Dumbledore. I'm sorry, my friend, if it isn't as dark as you wanted. You see, I've known hopelessness, and I've learned that it is an illusion. There's always a way, no matter who betrays us and no matter how long we've lived with that betrayal. There are people who love us even if we're too proud to admit it. You have your own Order of the Phoenix who will march into hell for you, and don't you ever, ever forget it. Blessed be.