Chapter Six

HERMIONE

May 2 (early hours)

Her son—she had a son, a beautiful son with platinum hair and icy grey eyes and he was in the midst of all this carnage, this stench, this horror of shouts and screams and—

Merlin, no, Merlin, no—not Fred, not Fred, not Fred, not her other half, not her laughter and her heart and her soul—no, this was not Fred, this head with the gash in the red hair and the blue eyes staring flat and mirthless and skin pasty and white and—

This wasn't fair. She wasn't the Chosen One, the Boy Who Lived, and she'd never been brave, had never been strong, and she'd given everything, more than everything and here she was and yes, he'd told her to do this, to do this thing, and she'd thought she could do it, but the snake… how could she kill it, how could she—and she swung and the weight of the sword tore at her joints and the force of the blow as it broke through skin and meat and struck, then severed, the bone shuddered through her and she screamed her victory but it tasted like terror—

Icy cold fingertips trailed down her temples.

Something cold and liquid entered and poured into her, and even though she felt it settling straight into what might be her brain, her entire body trembled as the coolness spread through her.

She tried to open her eyes, but couldn't, but it was all right because the cold hands touched her, soothed her, and…

She caught her breath in a gulp that was partly a cry of relief and partly a sob.

Behind her closed eyes, she saw the hospital bed, and this time the memory of pain and loss was vague and unformed, but the feel of his body against hers, his arms embracing her, his breath on her neck and his voice in her ear… they were all real.

She sank more deeply into them, wrapped herself in them, and waited for dawn.

#

She was cold, so cold. She opened her eyes to darkness and felt bereft, like something vital was missing.

This was not her bed. She reached blindly toward the night table, and her fingers grasped the wand. A wand. Not her wand.

Just a stick. A dead, dead stick.

She jerked upright in the bed, frantic, and saw him, a slight silhouette against the dim light coming in from the window. Slight, dim, but unmistakably him.

"Severus?" she asked, her voice quavering in the cold, dark room. Her fingers clenched around the useless piece of wood.

"Do you know where you are?" he asked, his voice strained and hoarse.

A calm seeped into her, despite her near panic. "No."

"You're in St Mungo's."

Suddenly, she understood the stick in her hand, and she hurled it at the floor. The Janus Thickey Ward, where the patients were given faux wands to hold, to make them feel more secure….

"Severus?" This time there was no hiding the panic. She tried to stand, but he crossed the room quickly and his hands closed on her shoulders, and she felt the reaction lurch through her, his touch, oh, god—his touch…

"Pensieve poisoning," he announced crisply. "And are we at all surprised?"

But his voice didn't hold the acid edge she would have expected.

"I want to go—" she began desperately, and then broke off before the word home. Where? Where could she go?

And suddenly it was too much for her, too much to bear, and she felt tears flowing down her face and great hiccoughing sobs tore through her and—

He dropped his hands from her shoulders and stepped back.

Oh, god.

She pressed her fingers to her lips, grateful for the inky darkness.

"Before we continue, there are certain facts of which I think you should be aware." His voice was tightly contained.

She sat silently, refusing to answer, refusing to let her own voice betray her.

"Narcissa…" The word hung there between them for an impossible length of time, before he finally continued, as emotionless and distant as if he were discussing some long-forgotten Quidditch match. "Pansy. The others. Were not what they seemed."

But that—that pulled a reaction from her that she couldn't restrain. "What—what do you mean?" she demanded. "Pansy… you saw her tonight, didn't you? You went out with her to celebrate—"

She felt the very air freeze between them as he went rigid. "And how would you know that?"

"Because I smell her perfume on you, and I smell Lady Ambrosia, the lip colour all the fashionable witches are wearing these days." Lip colour, the fragrance of which could only be scenting the air if he'd… kissed her. She took in the slowest breath possible, biting on her fingers, willing herself to hold it in for just a little longer.

"Indeed." He cleared his throat. "However, it's not what you might think, and I believe it's only fair to let you know that it never was. Hermione, my actions with other witches—"

No, no, no, I don't want to hear!

"—were only as frequent and public as necessary to give your friends the ammunition to free you and, by so doing, free me."

She sat frozen. He couldn't be saying—no, not that, surely not that. "But you and Pansy—"

"Are mere friends. And I might add, she is a friend to you, as well, as she made herself part of public scandal to further my efforts to dissolve our ridiculous… situation."

"You said—you said you had plans for May 2, for tomorrow, and I thought you and Pansy were going to—" Again, she couldn't bring herself to finish the thought, to bring the pain crashing down on her again.

"Don't be absurd. Why would I exchange one marriage for another?"

Something tight and hard clamped on her heart. "But you could still have a future with her, if you give it time, and a family and—"

"For Merlin's sake, Hermione," he snapped. "Did you honestly believe I wanted children?"

"You need somebody to love you, and somebody to love, and if you won't let anybody else in, surely you couldn't deny your own child." It was the one thought that had given her hope.

The silence stretched between them.

"You're telling me—you never cared for them, never intended to—to care for them."

His silence was her answer.

"They never asked me," she whispered into the darkness. "They never once asked me, 'Hermione, is this what you want? Will this make you happy?' They thought because I was unhappy, that by getting me away from you, they could fix it. They could fix me… but they never asked. And even though it was like a knife twisting in me, I accepted it because I knew deep down, I knew I deserved that pain, and what's more, it was almost poetic, being forced to end it because they knew best, since I forced you to marry me because I knew best. And of course—I could see you, I could see you when you left the castle on those nights and when you returned, and I could see the pictures in the Prophet and—and you were supposed to be happy. You were supposed to be free and happy—but—you never intended to be happy, you held me up as a pathetic object of ridicule to free yourself from me for—for nothing?"

And before he could answer, she flung herself across the small space that separated them, let all her pain and emptiness erupt in hot, molten rage, and attacked him.

"Bastard!" she hissed. "You couldn't wait—you had to come here and stand over me and taunt me and—"

His strong hands closed on her wrists, and he wrestled her back to the bed, but not before she felt the satisfying contact of fingernails against skin, not before she felt him flinch and heard him hiss at the contact, and she wanted more, more. How dare he come here to gloat and to finish the job he'd already begun of ripping her heart from her breast and—

"Hermione!" How long had he been calling her name? How long had he stood there, supporting her as she gasped and heaved against his chest, wanting to destroy him, wanting him to—

She wrenched herself away.

"Get out," she said, her voice a low growl. "Leave."

"I understand," he said slowly, "but you need to know the totality of what brought you here."

"Pensieve poisoning," she spat. "Which will no longer be an issue, as I have all but finished the book."

"And a rather… foolhardy decision to rid yourself of memories that seem to be the only thing that were keeping you in balance."

His words were ice in her veins. The Pensieve she'd left out, the memories.

"You… you saw."

He didn't answer.

"Who else?"

"No one. That's why I'm here, to return them to you and…" This time it was he who seemed unable to complete his thought.

She remembered coming out of the nightmares; she remembered his voice, his touch, his body curled against her back, and almost reeled under the recognition that she had them back, her memories, her precious memories.

Unless.

"Did you… whisper to me?" she finally asked, finding herself unwilling to ask the rest. Did you hold me? Did you comfort me? Because the answer was, of course, no, never, never did he and never would he; it was just the memory, the fantasy she'd concocted—the fantasy he'd witnessed.

"No," he said. "It would have been unconscionable, after all that I put you through, to take such a liberty when you were unable to reject it."

It hadn't been real.

She hadn't suffered the ultimate indignity of his pity, the one thing he'd never shown her, even when everyone else had. At least she still had that thread to cling to, to get her through this.

"I asked you to leave," she said softly.

"I—" His voice was choked.

How odd. Somewhere in the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm her, she was able to register that thought. How odd. He sounded as if he were choking.

"Hermione…"

How very, very odd.

"If it would bring you any comfort… I can take you away from here. I have a small cottage on the coast of Cornwall…."

Of course. A rugged, rocky coast, battered by gales swept in off the Channel. How fitting, some distant voice remarked in her mind.

"For tonight… or as long as you wish."

It sounded cold and lonely.

She had been cold and lonely for too long.

She shook her head in the darkness.

"The bed is… larger than the one in your cell. More suitable for…"

For what? Surely he wasn't suggesting—

He cleared his throat, and it was a harsh sound in the night. "I am not a man who cuddles, Hermione. It's not in my nature. But if it brought you any comfort, I would be willing to… hold you, until you slept."

And there it was.

The pity.

Her humiliation was complete.

"That will not be necessary." And this time it was her voice that was cold and clipped, and she felt a surge of relief and pride and was able to continue. "I'm quite sure I can sleep without you, Severus. I've done it for five long years, after all."

"Where will you go?"

Well, there was a question, wasn't it? "I have the best of friends," she said for the second time on this nightmare night.

"Indeed."

Silence was her weapon. The longer she sat, still and silent in the darkness, the less reason he would have to stay. And so she embraced the silence and wrapped it around her like a quilt, waiting, waiting for him to leave….

She sensed rather than saw his hand as it reached toward her face and then stopped short and dropped to his side. He then turned, his strides long and purposeful, and he was at the door, and he was opening the door, and she only needed to hold out moments longer, only moments—

"Hermione," he said, and she held back the sob that threatened.

"Hermione, I couldn't let myself want you. I couldn't let them win. It was never about you. It was about them."

She dropped her head and took in a slow shuddering breath, fighting for calm.

"It was never that I didn't… want you."

"But you hated them more." She felt a twisted pain knife through her. "So… they won."

She knew this moment, she'd seen it more times than time itself could tell, this moment when he left her and she begged him to stay and he left her anyway and—

And this time, she would not beg.

"Leave," she said again.

"Hermione—"

"Leave."

She heard his footsteps, felt his approach, felt his hands close on her shoulders an instant even before they touched her. And she had lied, because she did beg; she begged with all her heart, even as her body sang at his touch. "Go…"

And, oh—oh, God, her fantasy had not prepared her for this, had not come close to the feel of one strong, long-fingered hand cupping the back of her head and pressing her cheek to his chest as she wept, of his other hand trembling against her back, stroking, rubbing, clutching and pulling her tighter against his body.

"Don't," she pleaded, "don't do this, not now, not now." Because whatever she might have wanted before, she now knew this was a memory she wouldn't survive.

"When else?" he asked, his face buried in her hair. And then, "You weren't supposed to break. They were supposed to catch you. You weren't supposed to break. I thought—I thought they would know how to make you happy again."

She didn't have an answer. How little they knew of each other, that they could be so wrong about each other.

"I have a cottage on the coast of Cornwall…."

I have a heart that may not survive you….

He dropped to his knees, and the word, the single word, "Please…" pierced right through her.

As much as she had refused to beg, she couldn't let this happen, she couldn't stand the thought of this proud man, who should never have to kneel again, kneeling before her and begging, and so, when he opened his mouth and drew in breath again, she did the only thing she could to stop him from speaking. She kissed him.

And her heart shattered.

And his arms, his strength, were all that sustained her.

And they were enough.

#

It was one of many post-war ironies that, the morning after the Dissolution Law went into effect and the most infamous marriage of all was dissolved, Severus Snape (Murderer of Albus Dumbledore; Death Eater; Order of Merlin, Second Class) and Hermione Granger (Best Friend of the Boy Who Lived; Heroine of Hogwarts Battle; Order of Merlin, First Class) disappeared from the public eye and retired to Cornwall.

Hermione Granger did not reappear upon the publication of her book (which was revered by scholars and met with consternation by those not prepared for its harsh realities, but in the final analysis, was considered a key force in the healing process of wizarding England).

Severus Snape did not concern himself with the future of wizarding England and its young, nor with the needs of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry when it was suddenly without a Potions master, being more concerned with the healing of Hermione Granger.

They did not remarry.

They had no children.

They found neither circumstance detrimental to their happiness.

For yes, they were happy, and their passion ran swift and deep, protected from the elements by the thick walls and thatched roof of their snug cottage overlooking the rocky coast and oft-churning sea. And long after her nightmares had slowed and finally ceased, Severus still held Hermione as she slept.

The Ministry did not win.

~fin~

This little fic grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let me go until I wrote it a few months ago. It leaves a lot unsaid; feel free to fill in the blanks the way you wish or ask questions on my LJ blog (see my profile). I'll start replying to reviews now; while it was being posted it was just too difficult to see your questions and not answer. Thank you for your response for a difficult fic. I know it won't please everybody, but do appreciate that you followed me to the end.