Disclaimer: Not mine.
After the Fall
The Sixth Christmas After
That morning Professor Snape woke with a headache. It was strong enough to blur his vision and cause his hands to shake. He had trouble picking up the vial that sat on the small table next to his bed, and once he had managed to grab the small blue bottle in both hands, he had to concentrate to open it, wanting to scream as every move he made shot a flash of pain so bright he felt blinded by the burst behind his eyes.
Over the past few months, he spent all his free time in his lab searching for a better potion, or for something to add to this one to strengthen it and make its effects last longer. He had been unsuccessful and had smashed vial after vial into the wall as he failed.
Today the headache was worse than it had been in the last few months. He remembered the glass of wine he'd had the night before and blamed it on the fact that the wine had mixed with his potions. He would not place the blame on the half bottle of whiskey he consumed when he returned to his chambers as he did each night in his search of painless sleep.
He made it as far as the shower, where he let the hot water flow over his back, and when the pain became unbearable, he fell to his knees. He braced himself against the hard tile with shaking arms and knew he would stay in this position until the worst passed; then he could make it back to his bed, where he would spend the remainder of the day. He felt every one of his joints, as if on fire, and his muscles contract and cramp in reaction to the pain. He lowered his head and waited until he could stand, taking great gulps of air and praying that his muscles did not spasm when he hit the cold air in his bedchamber.
The towel around his waist slipped to the ground, and being unable to bend and pick it up, he made it to the mantle and took up his wand to cast an Accio. Wrapping the towel around himself, he made his way to the table and grabbed the bottle, tipped it up, and swallowed what he could before the burn running down his throat made him put it down again.
He thought of Minerva's gathering in the Great Hall and scowled. He would go if he must, he thought to himself. He smirked, knowing his actions would not be to Minerva's liking after half a bottle of whiskey and two vials of potions.
Minerva was in her office early that day, taking her morning tea by the window that overlooked the grounds. She could still see the battle that had taken place at quiet times like this, as the morning fog crept across the grounds as the smoke had on that night so long ago. She could hear the screams and the thundering sound of walls falling and crashing around her. She could list every life Voldemort took that night, and all those lost before. She could list each injury received and knew which ones still festered.
She sipped her tea and remembered the first war and the lives lost then. She remembered the Prewett boys, and the four young men that had dubbed themselves the Marauders, and wondered how many more names she would be adding to her list. She knew the war was not yet over for many. Not yet, not until the pain was gone and the memories put away would the war be over. Not until the last had laid down the fight would she be able to rest.
Neville still returned from St. Mungo's each week looking more and more haunted. She knew he felt somehow guilty that he had survived when others around him had died, and the sight of what was left of his parents added to that guilt. She worried for Neville and wondered at times if he would ever come off her list.
She knew the dungeons held what would be the first name added to her list of those lost that still walked. Severus had not taken a meal with the staff since he had returned to his position three years ago. She had forced him to attend the staff party tonight hoping that he would join in a conversation. The only time he talked was when he goaded a staff member or berated a student.
Minerva shook her head and walked over to her desk, where she sat and poured herself a second cup of tea. Hermione, she thought. Whatever will she do?
Minerva reached in her drawer and pulled out the girl's personal folder to read it over again, although she had it memorized. She wanted to help her find a new post but knew the prospects were slim. Even with the war over, many businesses would not hire a Muggle-born, seeing them as somehow the cause of the war. After all, they would say, if only pure-bloods existed, monsters like Voldemort would not rise against them to bring war, and if the Muggle-born had just left, the war could have been avoided.
She sighed and began to read the file again.
Hermione bought all the professors the same present for Christmas that sixth Christmas after. She put in her order at Flourish and Blotts months early to make sure she did not have to enter the shops with crowds of students and pushy parents looking for that perfect gift for someone they barely knew. She sat on the floor of her chambers and wrapped the leather journals, each embossed with the recipient's name and the year, the old-fashioned Muggle way. She used white paper and silver ribbon to avoid the foolish designation of houses, a custom she had grown to detest.
Since the war had ended, in this new time she called after, she no longer could look at the houses the same way and avoided any representation that fed into the old prejudices. She could no longer give the Heads of Houses their tokens wrapped in greens or reds. She could no longer look forward to the holidays as she had as a student, foolishly thinking the calendar could bring some measure of joy and peace to an undeserving world.
The war had stolen more than her youth and dreams of happy endings and fairytale lives. The war had stolen her trust in all that she knew. She no longer thought of a grand career, enlightening minds, finding cures, or a marriage and redheaded children. She gave all that up soon after the war.
She had felt like an eleven-year-old again and just starting out. She was without a purpose and found that she and her best friends were joined only in a cause, a mystery, a play of their own creation, and put on a stage built by an old man, directed by a prophesy and applauded by a world that did not understand. The war had been exciting, romantic, and glamorous to young children, and helped form a bond between them. Once that war was over, the bonds came undone, fell to the ground, and were left there. They had not even tried to retie them. They were too afraid to face the past to look to the future.
Too many years were between them now. The first was spent in front of cameras, trying to avoid unwanted publicity. That first year Harry grew distant and pulled away from the famous trio. By the second year, even Ronald did not notice or did not care about the ever-growing distance that separated them. She and Ronald had stayed together from habit until a cold realization of their growing apart was too much to ignore. They had never officially broken up or told each other they were done. They drifted apart until the last 'see you soon' became three years.
Hermione sent greeting cards out this morning to show a celebration of the season as tradition required. One card included apologies for not attending the festivities at the Burrow; the rest included only her signature. She debated if she should use her last name, but in the end she signed only her first, having thought it was enough to give a personal touch.
She piled the wrapped journals on the coffee table and slowly pulled herself up, arching and placing her hands in the small of her back. She stretched to get the kinks out from sitting on the floor too long as she glanced at the clock.
Shite, she thought. The staff party started five minutes ago. Now she would be late and would listen to the reprimands and see the curt nods of disapproval. The sooner she got there, the sooner she could leave. She hated these things, hated that Headmistress McGonagall knew she did and still forced her to attend. She picked up the journals and headed for the Great Hall wearing her teaching robes and not the expected festive holiday dress.
She walked with the journals hugged to her chest and her head lowered, keeping her eyes on the stone hallway floor. Her stride was long and firm, making it obvious to all that saw her that she did not want to be disturbed and was intent on getting to her destination with the least possible interference.
"Hermione!" She heard her name called only to lengthen her stride and walk faster.
"Hermione, hold on. Do you need some help with those?" Neville asked, coming up to her and matching her shorter stride.
"No, Neville. They really are not heavy," she sighed, knowing her idea to slide her packages under the tree and leave the party had just evaporated.
"I've been looking forward to this. It is nice to get together and not talk business." He grinned and shoved his hands in his pockets as they walked down the stone hallway.
"Yeah, that will be nice."
"I heard Snape is even coming this year."
"That'll be a first. He's been back three years now, and this will be the first he's been forced to." Hermione looked up at Neville angrily. "It's not fair, you know. The treatment he gets, I mean."
"You know how McGonagall has been since the war."
"He isn't the only one that … I am sorry, Neville. I really don't mean that. I guess I just don't want to be here tonight."
She thought of how Severus had looked that night when Harry brought him back to the castle. Harry had levitated him, screaming for help as he made his way to the hospital ward. Once there, he had begged Madame Pomfrey until she left the injured students long enough to staunch the bleeding and get Kingsley involved with sending him to St. Mungo's. St. Mungo's had not accepted Death Eaters. There were too many injuries on the side of light to worry about those in black robes and silver masks.
Severus Snape had lain in bed for the next six months until he could sit up enough to go on trial for war crimes. With the memories in Albus' Pensieve, Harry as a witness, and McGonagall's insistence that he was a member of the Order, he avoided Azkaban. However, the publicity which he hated more than his injuries was unavoidable. During the following months of rehabilitation and medical care, Hermione had only once attempted to see him and vowed not to make that mistake again.
She had walked onto the ward in St. Mungo's, not even sure what she intended to say. All she knew was that every time she closed her eyes she saw the dead and dying. She had somehow thought by talking to him she could come to terms with what had happened and put it behind her.
He had been caustic, insulting, and cold. He had smirked at her tears. He had told her to grow up and to stop acting like a stupid bint, to stop glorifying death and to leave him alone. She had run from the room, her face hot and tears blurring her vision as she fought for air. That was the day the war had ended for her and she started to count the time as before and after.
Hermione finished her seventh year and when she was unable to find employment, she reluctantly accepted Minerva's offer. Now, five years later she found herself unable and unwilling to venture out again. She would send out applications and resumes only to have her interviewers turn their questions to Harry Potter and the final battle. She went to interview after interview with companies that never intended to offer her a job, only wanting to meet one of the trio.
Neville stepped ahead of her and opened the door to the Great Hall, allowing Hermione to enter first, and then followed her in, quietly closing the door. With only staff in the vast room, the sound of the door closing echoed, announcing their arrival to those already gathered around the head table. Minerva stood and started towards them as Hermione put her packages under the tree. Neville reached into his pocket, enlarged the gifts he carried with a shrinking spell and pushed them to join hers.
"Professor Granger, Professor Longbottom," Minerva said in greeting. "I am so glad you could finally make it."
"Ten minutes, Headmistress, we are only ten minutes late." Hermione lifted her eyebrow and looked at the older witch coldly.
"It's my fault. I stopped her in the hallway to talk." Neville smiled as he told his small lie to save Hermione from further discussion on the importance of being on time.
"It appears the younger staff have not yet learned discipline, Headmistress, once again demonstrating their ineptitude and unwillingness to be punctual." Snape's voice cut through the air.
"Thank you, Professor Snape." Hermione turned to look at him. "How very festive of you, and on this very special day."
He folded his arms across his chest and looked down at her, then turned to the Headmistress. "Minerva, I do believe that you have news to share with us concerning the upcoming term."
"I do not believe this is the best time to go into it," Minerva said. "We do not need to spoil the occasion."
"What news?" Hermione knew this would concern her by the smug look on Snape's face.
"Minerva, whenever you start by calling me Professor, I know you are about to correct me or tell me something I do not want to hear. Since you have already corrected my tardiness, I can only assume that whatever this news is will only suit Snape." She looked evenly at the Headmistress.
"Umm, Hermione?" Neville tugged on her sleeve. "We can talk about it later."
"You know?" Hermione saw Neville blanch.
"Our budget has been cut. We have far fewer students this term than last, and next year proves to be worse," Minerva offered with a rise of her chin.
"You are telling me you are cutting my workload again and my pay?" Hermione clenched her jaw and tried to remain calm.
"Not exactly," Snape purred.
"Severus, enough," Minerva said.
"Neville?" Hermione turned only to see Neville staring at the floor, not meeting her eyes.
"I am sorry, dear." Minerva put her hand on Hermione's arm.
Hermione looked between the three and felt as much as heard the silence that had came over the room. No matter how hard the rest of the staff worked not to look at her, she could feel everyone watching. She felt tears on the back of her eyes and swallowed hard, trying to keep them in check. The look on Minerva's face told her everything she needed to know.
"Professor Sprout will be retiring this year so that will ensure Professor Longbottom, but…"
"Yes, I quite understand. Muggle Studies and Charms are taken. When will this become effective?"
"Next term. However, you are welcomed to stay though the summer," Minerva said quietly.
"I am sure that will be unnecessary." Hermione lifted her chin and smiled thinly. "I am sure I will find a post well before then."
"I will be more than happy to write you a letter of recommendation, my dear," Minerva said.
"I am sure you can find something commendable to write if you try hard enough," Snape sneered at Minerva.
Hermione felt her face flush. She knew if she did not get out of this room soon, she would lose what little control she still had.
"I do need to leave now, Minerva. I have a previous engagement for the evening." She turned to the door and walked out of the room without turning as Neville called her name.
She hurried down the hall when suddenly her knees felt weak, making her stop and rest against a windowsill, leaning her forehead on the cool glass and willing her tears away. She looked out at the grounds and could not see them for the memories that flashed in front of her. Memories of children she no longer knew and games she no longer played overlaid by the sound of falling walls and screams of pain.
She stood up and straightened her back, lifted her chin and began to walk back to her chambers. She would be fine. She would remake herself and move somewhere they did not know her. She could start over and find some measure of peace away from here, away from what she could no longer bear.