Gently, she guided the dark man to the bed, helping him to position himself for the night. Immediately, he closed his eyes and appeared to be asleep. Changing quickly into nightclothes, Hermione slipped into the bed next to him, laying her hand gently on his shoulder and, within minutes, was fast asleep.

He was waiting for her when she arrived, perched on the sofa, hands clasped together tightly, expression pensive.

"Did you succeed?" he asked, as soon as she appeared. "Am I… that is to say, is my body…?"

"Your body is astonishingly healthy and currently asleep in my bed, Severus," Hermione interjected quickly, eager to soothe his anxiety.

He took a deep breath and appeared to relax slightly. "Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you."

Moved by his gratitude and relief, her voice shook. "I am grateful beyond measure that it was possible to find you, and to move you." She paused, wondering whether he would ask for more details and when he did not, continued. "I found out who rescued you, Severus." He looked up, eyebrows raised, questioning. "Draco. The nurse said that he brought you to the emergency ward six years ago, made sure that you were cared for and," she hesitated, unsure how he would feel about this last bit of information, "arranged to pay for your long-term care at the hospital."

Severus sat blankly for a moment, absorbing what he had learned. Leaning back into the cushions, he closed his eyes and sighed. "There is good in that boy, I knew there was." He lifted his head and looked at Hermione. "I don't remember much after giving Potter my memories… just some sound and movement and," he shook his head as if disoriented, "something else that I can't quite put my finger on. Then… nothing until... here, you visiting me each night and waking me."

She smiled. "I don't know when he was able to get away, or how he knew that you were there—" She shook her head. "—or for that matter, how he kept you from bleeding out from that bite. Apparently, you arrived at the emergency ward already healed, your blood counts were still low, but they kept you because you were essentially catatonic."

"Because I… the essence of my… self… was not there."

"It was here. With me," she whispered, moving to join him on the couch. "We just didn't know it, either of us, for a long time."

They sat together, each absorbed in thought. Hermione broke the silence first. "There's a lot here that we can't account for, still so much we don't know. But for now, I am thankful that we are here, now… together… and that we are on our way to being together in life and not only in dreams."

Severus turned to her, his expression serious. The flicker of uneasiness that crossed his features was gone before Hermione could respond. "The last of my experiments is about to be completed," he began brusquely, "and then I will know what we need to know about this potion."

She looked at him, eyes wide, but before she could pelt him with questions, he continued.

"This potion has been difficult to decipher, but this is the definitive test. It will tell me how to administer the draught and what we should expect to happen next."

Hermione nodded, uneasiness warring with excitement. "Okay… so, do you mean that we could go forward tonight?" she asked, heart hammering.

He hesitated. "Perhaps… potentially, yes."

"Potentially? But what…."

He did not let her finish. Instead, he stood abruptly and strode to the bench, leaning over the cauldron to examine it.

The look on his face as he gazed into the cauldron was masklike, but before she could move, he shook his head. "It can't be… the texts suggested it, but I cannot believe… that can't be right." He turned away from her, but not before she saw the shuttered look in his eyes. Something made him close up tight again… but what?

"What can't be right, Severus? What's wrong?" Hermione jumped up to join him alongside the cauldron.

He stood, back to her, folded in on himself. Something has frightened him... This man who risked his life for twenty years, what could be so terrifying? Hermione reached for him, tentative only for a moment, and wrapped her arms around him, laying her cheek on his back. Silently she held him, listening to the rapid beating of his heart and his erratic breaths as he struggled with a fear that she did not yet understand. As his breathing steadied, he reached for her hands and drew her around to face him. Hermione bit her lip to keep from crying out at the sight of his anguished expression, his eyes filled with an indefinable mixture of hope and terror.

"Tell me," she whispered.

He shook his head and pulled her into a fierce embrace, burying his face in her tousled hair. Finally, he took a deep breath and pulled away from her, shifting his gaze to meet hers, his voice rough with emotion. "I don't think that I really believed it, Hermione." He shook his head at her puzzled expression. "No matter your certainty that the Amplector Animum enchantment would reject a soul that was too Dark, or that our use of the Adfinitas Animarum proved that we were suited…." She made an indignant noise, and he forestalled more of her response with a touch of a long finger to her lips. "Wait, Hermione, I am not finished."

Nodding reluctantly, despite her confusion, she kept her silence as he continued, "You are an amazing woman, Hermione… generous and loyal. Lovely and brave." He smiled tenderly at the blush that stained her cheeks. "To think that your nature and the power of your desire saved me – this I could imagine. But the idea that my soul is any match for yours—" He shook his head sadly. "—no matter how fervently you choose to believe this, Hermione, I fear that you are mistaken." He looked at her with the expression of a man who had lived a thousand years of despair and believed himself deserving.

He paused, struggling again to steady himself. "I might have lived with my secret, Hermione – I might have selfishly let you believe that our souls were well-matched. We could have continued to have our moments here together, secret and alone… never really enough, but… it could have sufficed for me… until you grew tired of your half-life and moved on…." His voice was gravelly and he could no longer meet her eyes.

"And I imagine that eventually my soul would have faded away… or moved on… but you would be safe." He paused, distracted. Hermione whimpered, unable to restrain herself any longer. Silently, she moved closer, wrapping her arms around Severus again, bringing him out of his reverie. Her arms around him appeared to trigger surge of grief and guilt, and he blurted out, "I didn't mean to… I never meant to put you in harm's way…."

"In harm's way? Severus, how have you put me in harm's way?" Her voice was desperate, pleading.

"I participated in our bonding, Hermione, allowed the magic and the passion to take over." He stroked her hair gently, fingers tangled in an errant curl. "There is no going back now… you would have been safe before, but now…" His voice broke.

"Why am I no longer safe, Severus? I don't understand."

Severus gestured to the silver cauldron containing the amethyst potion sitting on the lab bench, intertwining spirals of steam rising from it. "I have never seen a potion with this particular combination of characteristics." She nodded mutely and he continued, "If I am correct, the first component of the potion will release my soul from the protection of yours." He met her eyes, expression sombre. "But the second part of the potion, the part that has been baffling me is a variant of a Veritas potion. I couldn't figure out why this potion that seems designed to reunite my soul with my body would need a Veritas component." He paused for a moment, reflective, and Hermione endeavoured to remain still.

"According to the sources I have found—" He indicated the pile of books that Hermione had gathered from his house at Spinner's End. "—the Amplector Animum enchantment cannot simply be… undone." He rubbed his eyes with his hands. "It led us to our… bonding, a bonding that we chose, but which we were guided to by the magic of the Amplector Animum and the Adfinitas Animarum. Once the enchantment – which is a sort of bonding itself – occurs, there is a pull for the two souls to bind themselves to one another further. So in order to untangle my soul from the Amplector Animum and from your soul without doing damage to you," he hesitated at this, dread shadowing his features, "the potion will strip us bare, Hermione. It will show us to one another… fully… and it will leave us to choose."

"To choose what, Severus?" Her face was frozen with fear.

"I explained earlier that the intertwining steam pattern means that in order for the potion to work, both components must be active. Neither the release nor the revelation can happen in isolation – they occur together. In order to safely release my soul, Hermione, the potion will strip all artifice from us. It will reveal our true selves, our whole selves to the other. In order for my soul to reanimate my body, both of us must choose one another again… freely." He shook his head. "And because of the bonds that exist between us now, if one or the other of us turns away, both souls… move on." He looked at her, his expression fierce. "We cannot do this. You will not like what you see, Hermione, of this I can assure you."

She sat, stunned, absorbing his words. "But why, what are you so afraid of? I love you, I've already chosen you. I told you – I do see you whole—" She tilted her jaw in a gesture of defiance. "—and that potion isn't going to show me anything that I don't already know about you."

He laughed, roughly. "You have no idea what you will see, Hermione, no idea what I've done… what I am." He turned abruptly, taking the edge of his robe and wrapping himself in its folds. "It is an unacceptable risk," he stated, "no matter your best intentions now, in the moment that you see me under the influence of the potion, you will not be able to prevent yourself from drawing back."

He was pacing now, refusing to look at her as he spoke in tones usually reserved for errant students. "We will not do this. I will not risk your safety, your life." He shook his head. "No. This ends here." He drew himself up, the sweep of his robes oddly reminiscent of another time when he draped himself in fabric armour, the shield's effectiveness now no better than it had been then.

"No, Severus, no." Hermione moved swiftly to face him. "You do not get to decide this alone." Her voice was shaking with suppressed fury. "How dare you act as if I have no right to make this decision? And furthermore," her voice rising as he made to interrupt her, "how can you have so little trust, so little faith… in yourself… in me… in us?" Her face was bright with anger as she struggled to slow her breathing. "Besides," she said, a bit more softly, "who's to say that you won't be repulsed by what you see in me, Severus?"

He looked up at her, startled. "That's ridiculous—"

"You insist on seeing yourself as ruined, a blackened soul—" She interrupted him. "—and you imagine that I see you in some distorted, idealised way." She laughed, shortly. "But I think that it is you who will be surprised that there is also Darkness in me, Severus, not the other way around." She had moved slightly away from him, arms hugging herself, eyes bright. "I am not perfect, Severus. And the only reassurance that I can offer… the only hope that I can see is our trust in one another." She looked up to find him staring at her incredulously. "Trust that I want you. All of you. Just as I must trust that the shadows inside of me won't make you turn away."

Her heart clenched at the look of raw hope on his face. He stood opposite her for a long moment, frozen in the grip of his longing and his terror. After a moment's hesitation, he stepped closer and reached out a hand to cradle the nape of her neck. Drawing her close, he enfolded her in trembling arms as the weight of his uncertainty enveloped them. Standing thus, she was reminded of the first time they had wrapped themselves around one other—each overwhelmed with love and longing, and equally afraid that revulsion and rejection would be their reward.

"Have faith, Severus," she whispered as she drew back to meet his eyes.

"Faith," he echoed, eyes glittering as he held her gaze. And reverentially, as if he were sanctifying a prayer, Severus took Hermione's hand and placed a single kiss in its palm.

There was nothing left to say. The delicate bonds of trust and love that had sprung between them over their weeks and months together cocooned them. Severus bottled the ancient brew and in silent accord, they settled themselves on the soft rug before the fire. The amethyst potion shimmered in two crystal flasks, its smell reminiscent of cinnamon buns eaten while reclining on a bed of lush grass on a warm summer day. Breathing deeply to steady herself, Hermione's hand shook just a little as she took hers from Severus.

Facing one another, a hair's breadth apart, eyes bright with hope, they drank.

Hermione's eyes closed as she felt the potion move through her, the taste of acid and cinnamon sharp in her mouth. For a moment, she felt as if her body were on fire, and then, after a wave of dizziness, she felt light, almost euphoric. She breathed deeply as she waited. What am I afraid to see? Am I afraid to know? Long moments passed until she cautiously opened her eyes.

Severus sat opposite; eyes closed tightly, hands clenched into fists at his sides. A brilliant glow surrounded him, bathing him in shards of luminous colour. He was breathing rapidly, as if terrified. At Hermione's small movement, he cautiously opened his eyes to peer at her. A smile lit his face as he looked at her, and she glanced down at herself and laughed. She, too, was drenched in light. Softer, but no less vibrant, Hermione gazed at a radiant hand, and reached out to touch him.

It was as if all the layers of Severus Snape opened to her at once. His pride, his shame, his rage, all glowed in a burning knot of crimson and copper. Not as fiery, but no less compelling, his sadness, his longing for acceptance, his grief, and his guilt all wound around each other in luminous beams of goldenrod and jade. Shards of black, like spidery cracks in glass, shot through the tangles in strands of light as thin as angel hair.

But underneath, secreted beneath the knots of his frailty, which were blinding in their incandescence, shone a smooth, supple core. Integrity, loyalty, passion, honesty and a capacity for love that overwhelmed her with its intensity shimmered in a sheet of azure and amethyst that radiated from Severus like the sun shining off the ocean. Deep and still, the light shone steadily, unwavering and true.

Hermione looked up to find him examining her with all the intensity that she had directed towards him. She opened to him, showed him her competitiveness, her need to be recognised, her fear of being left behind, all wound together in luminous tangles of sienna and emerald. Her frustration and loneliness twisted around her pride in strands of scarlet and yellow. She showed him her vulnerability, her insecurity, both thin knots of grey woven into the shimmering tendrils. Beneath the snarls of fear and pain shone radiance as rich and deep as Severus'. Like liquid gold, it glowed with the depth of the sun and seemed as deep as any sea. Steady and solid, it shimmered, and the knots of colour around it paled in its shadow.

A sound of pure joy escaped her as she reached for him with both hands, meeting him as he moved towards her with the same intent. And with arms wrapped around each other, face to face, their eyes met. Images flooded them, flashes of memory and fragments of emotion jumbled but interlocked around their jagged edges.

And there was a baby crying irritably, held awkwardly by a frazzled woman who looked overwhelmed and afraid of her own shadow; and a little boy with a sad face pulling on the woman's skirts as she shuffled away from him; and then a slightly older boy talking eagerly with a red-haired girl who was smiling, gazing at a canopy of leaves in the trees above them; that boy, older still, looking astonished and awkward as a group of older, tougher boys made space in their circle for him to join them. A teenaged Severus now, watching a young woman with auburn hair turn stiffly away from him, closing a portrait door in his face; that same boy, muffling sobs with his pillow in the dead of night. Then confusion, fractured images of dark cloaks, silver masks and flashes of green and a sickened young man holding himself rigidly in the circle, looking at no one; a windswept mountain where, terrified and torn apart with fear and regret, a weary wizard in a black cloak knelt, hiding his face from the thunderstruck expression of the headmaster and his words. You disgust me.

Hermione wept silent tears as she watched that man hide himself deeper and deeper behind layers of rage, shame and regret. Memories of meting out harsh words with the precision of a blade warred with the recollection of nights spent cold and alone in his dungeon quarters, fear holding him in its vicelike grip. Dark shadows and screams of agony echoed in his memory as he hardened his features when he dared not turn away; images of whispered meetings and warnings, comrades distracted or diverted by his sharp wit and clever tongue fuelled a rush of relief and remorse for the many times when such diversions were impossible or went unheeded.

Without warning, Severus inhaled sharply, and Hermione tightened her grip as she saw his anguished face reflected in the headmaster's impossibly blue eyes. …And my soul, Dumbledore? Mine? And again…Severus, please… A flash of green and a silent scream so powerful that Hermione cried out in pain as she pulled him closer, enfolding him more securely in her arms. She saw his aura become dull as he retreated further behind his shields, flashes of contorted bodies and frightened young faces surrounding them. Then, facing Voldemort in the Shrieking Shack, transfixed by the snake suspended in its protective bubble, paralysed with horror that he would die without telling Potter what he must do. She felt him try to pull away from her embrace and held fast.

I will not go, nor will you. I am here and I will stay. Her thoughts, like a whisper of cool water in his mind, slipped through the cracks of memory and the fissures of grief. Look at me, Severus…. Look at me.

Confused, but momentarily distracted from his immersion in memory and pain, he shifted his focus. Other memories flooded them, textured with emotion, shaped differently than his, but magnetic in their honesty.

There was a baby, held securely in her mother's arms as they gazed into one another's eyes; a toddler, delighted at the floating blocks above her head, bursting into tears at the shock and horror on her parents' faces; a little girl in a cloud of hair, buoyant with excitement but withdrawing in shame as other children laughed or turned away; a taller child, hair grown along with her, holding a wand with a rapturous expression, a pang of guilt marring the moment as she saw her parents hang back from the shower of golden sparks that burst from her wand.

That same child with her hand in the air, blazing with the desire to show that she belongs, that she knows, desperately ignoring the impatience of peers and professors alike; alone again behind the curtains of her bed, tears soaking her pillow as she listened to the raucous noise from the common room below; crying again, hiding under a sink, a troll ripping through the room… and then… shocked expressions and welcoming smiles; and then two men duelling, one light, one dark, a surge of admiration and shame colliding; an older Hermione, watching Harry and Ron turn from her in anger and disgust as Professor McGonagall held Harry's new broom in her hands.

Then Yule, brimming with anticipation, flooded with hurt at the looks of disbelief when Viktor Krum reached for her hand; fear and fierce pride as the image of a dark, severe man with sharp black eyes strode to the Minister of Magic and exposed his Dark Mark; a stab of fear and longing as that man left on a mission that would surely risk his life; then a dark room with many doors, spinning; running, terrified, Death Eaters around every corner until searing pain and darkness descended; a flock of canaries, Conjured in a blinding rage; terror that Ron might die before she could tell him that she was sorry, so sorry.

Images moving faster now: running to the dungeons to get help when Death Eaters stormed the castle; shock and disbelief as Harry described the scene on the tower; Evil is a strong word… the fear and constant dread of being discovered as they hunted Horcruxes; confusing pangs of grief and sorrow as she listened to stories of happenings at Hogwarts; a flash of blinding fear alongside the images of Bellatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Greyback's leering faces; then searing pain and Crucio! echoing as if from a distance; hot anger, bitter betrayal at what Dumbledore had kept from them.

Then the Shrieking Shack. Shaking, peering between cracks of wood, hidden, terrified, startled by the slash of a wand, a snake attacking and a man crumbling like a rag doll to the floor.

And then, as Hermione watched herself step into the Shrieking Shack behind Harry, her vision merged with Severus'. Time seemed to slow, as together they watched his soul rise from his agonised body, the purple aura appearing like bruises beneath the strands of fierce colour. As he turned to face her, a wail of despair emerged from the depths of his soul, carrying with it the echo of every memory, every hurt and every hope held within. In a streak of fractured light, it burst from him—a radiant slash of anguish and loss.

And Hermione turned to it and opened her arms, drawing it near so that it shimmered between them in a luminous arc. They watched as her aura radiated from her in a wash of ochre light and seemed to soothe the splintered beam, gentled it, and drew it to her heart.

And then she heard him, in an anguished whisper, Alone… forever, alone.

But through the flickering light, Hermione's soul reached for his, shimmering gold, the knots of her fear and jealousy and anger dimmed by the brightness of her compassion and fierce belief in him. No, not alone. I see you, I am here with you.

He stilled, eyes narrowed in astonishment. You see me? You really... see me?

She nodded, steady and encouraging. I do… I see you. Please. Will you come?

He hesitated, brutal self-loathing a shadow on his soul. I don't want to hurt you. I could not bear to hurt you….

She shook her head and took a step towards him. I am not afraid of you… I see now, I understand… She gestured to her heart, where the tortured light had stilled and woven itself with the fiery strands of her aura. But you need to see me as well, you must be sure.…

He moved towards her cautiously, azure light radiating from him. He hesitated, as if loath to bring his essence any closer to hers than he had done already. But finally, he lifted his eyes to hers, a bewildered expression softening his features. Eyes locked, they intuitively leaned towards one another, rapid breathing gradually slowing as they instinctively laid bare the landscapes inside their souls. In an instant, they shifted again, looking at each other with entirely new eyes, Severus' expression no less bewildered, but now also yielding. And then, in tandem, they stepped forward, arms open. In the space of a heartbeat, his soul slipped into hers, disappearing within.

As they sat, the image of the shack and its inhabitants faded, but the watching witch and wizard held fast to one another, shivering with the force of what they had witnessed.

"We have already seen one another's souls bare, we just didn't remember," Hermione whispered.

"The enchantment, in the shack, it required both of us to be revealed," he murmured. "It was then that we had to choose, then that we had to see. The risk was then; the risk is over now. You are safe, my love, my life; you are safe." He buried his head in her hair as he shook with relief.

"We both are safe, Severus, both of us," she murmured as she reached for him and drew his lips to hers. "Look," she gestured to their surroundings.

No longer sitting before the fire in the cottage, they were instead huddled alongside a bed in a dark room. Two figures lay immobile on the bed. Severus gasped sharply and rose warily to look more closely.

"Where are we, Hermione?" he asked in a low voice.

She rose to stand beside him, worried about his reaction to her having placed his body in the bed beside her. "This is my bedroom, Severus. And here we are," she said nervously, gesturing to the two figures lying side by side, her hand resting gently on his shoulder as they slept.

He looked up at her sharply, brow furrowed. "You put me in your bed," he said, bemused.

Hermione blushed hotly. "I hated waking up every morning without you," she said softly. "Are you angry?"

He shook his head. "No, not angry. It's just," he swallowed thickly, "that you would want to be close to me even when I am… like that," he whispered. "I didn't, I never imagined..." He shook his head, at a loss for words.

Hermione smiled and reached for his hand, tracing the elegant lines of his fingers. "This way, when I was with you in dreams, I was also with you here. It was the closest I could get to having you with me, whole." She blinked back the wetness that misted her vision.

He clasped his fingers around her hands, stilling her caresses and drew them tenderly to his lips. Noting the apprehension that still shadowed his eyes, she spoke.

"I think it's time now, Severus. Our souls have been entwined, but now we can live our lives, as two who love and choose one another every day." She looked at him with her heart in her eyes. "I choose you, Severus; I choose to trust that you will love me and protect me with all that you have. I believe in you and have faith in us." She smiled softly. "You are free; you can be whole again and live the life that you have earned."

He nodded, speechless. His eyes glittered as he dipped his head to capture her lips in a searing kiss, pouring everything that he could not say into the purposeful strokes of his hands on her skin and the texture of his mouth's caress.

With a deep breath, he walked slowly towards the bed, laying a tentative hand on the thin chest. Like a river finding its ocean, his soul slipped into his body. The next thing Hermione knew, she was stirring as if from a dream. Disoriented only for a moment, she turned to look at the man lying beside her to find him awake and watching her.

"Severus," she said, reaching for his face, his arms, his hands, anything to verify that he was here, alive and awake.

"Hermione." His resonant voice rough from disuse, he still managed to caress each syllable.

She shivered. "Welcome home."

The smile that lit his face was the only answer she needed.