Disclaimer: JKR owns the characters, not me. Inspired by the song of the same name, by Bob Dylan.
'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm." –Bob Dylan
Severus Snape brought a cigarette to his mouth, and cupped his hands around it. He needed no match, no lighter—just a quick nonverbal spell, and a warm orange glow bloomed from its tip. He leaned against the wall and blew a thin, delicate stream of smoke into the thick, gently falling snow.
Smoke curled around him in the twilight. Had he been another wizard, he might perhaps have looked for omens in the twisting shapes it took. He might have searched for the outline of her curling hair, or her soft, familiar breasts and hoped to find a sign that he would see her again.
But he was not another wizard, and so he did his best to ignore the way that the graceful motion of the smoke and snowflakes in the still air called her back to his mind.
Years had passed since he had last seen her. A lifetime had passed. She had found him, in his other life, the life he had not dared to dream of escaping. He had been a different man, haunted and hunted, wandering alone on a road that was never anything less than treacherous. More often than not, his path seemed to catch at his feet like quicksand or Devil's Snare, threatening to drag him into the abyss and cover him in blackness.
He took a long, deep drag and held the smoke in his lungs. Blackness had been a virtue then, a necessity for survival. But after the war, even after he had staggered, barely alive, from the Shrieking Shack, he had wished to cast it off and found himself unable to do so. Too many years of well-trained spying had taken their toll, and even Harry Potter's good word was no help to him. He was then, more than ever he had been before the Dark Lord's death, an exile. His innocence, offered with what was almost his dying breath, was repaid with only hatred and scorn.
A gust of wind rose up and blew the snow in eddies around him where he stood, but he did not shiver. He was, perhaps, inured to cold by now.
It had been winter then, too, but he was not so accustomed to it. The winter after the Dark Lord's fall was a harsh one. Spinner's End was closed to him. Hogwarts was closed to him. The Order of the Phoenix and the Ministry of Magic considered him a traitor, and to his former Death Eater associates he was anathema. Nor could he bring himself to leave the Wizarding world and attempt to assimilate with Muggles. They were not his kind, would never be.
And so he struggled through the winter with only his wits and his wand, half-starved, half-frozen, the steely-eyed spectre of death always before him. That November, Kingsley Shacklebolt declared Severus Snape the new Public Enemy Number One, and all of Wizarding Britain was hunting for him.
It was January before his strength failed completely and he gave himself up for dead at the edge of the Forest of Dean. Nagini's venom, not entirely neutralized by the antidote he had carried, left him more exhausted by the day, and when the hail began to beat down on him, he barely had the strength to drag himself beneath a bush for shelter.
It didn't matter to him anymore if they found him. Let them find him and kill him, and welcome.
As the cold grew more bitter, time lost its meaning. How long he lay there, he didn't know. He only knew that, quite suddenly, there was a noise, and some faint remnant of a survival instinct caused him to muster the very last of his strength to sit up and turn around, his wand hand shaking uncontrollably.
There, in a circle of golden light that emanated from the wand that she held, stood Hermione Granger, her mouth agape.
"Professor Snape," she whispered, so softly that he almost missed the words under the sound of the hail on the leaves.
He was too tired to correct her use of the honorific, or even to say her name. With resigned weariness, he simply lowered his wand and forced himself to keep his eyes open. Warmth was beginning to blossom through his body, chasing away the cold that had got so deeply into his bones. He was sleepy.
"What are you doing here?"
He jerked his eyes open at the sound of her voice, and wondered vaguely when he had closed them. He opened his mouth to answer, but his tongue had grown thick and unwieldy, and he could say nothing.
"Nobody should be out on a night like this," she said softly.
It dawned on him suddenly that she had not attacked him, not bound him. Instead, she was looking at him with a pity so intense that it would have overwhelmed him, if he had the strength left to be overwhelmed.
"I was only here because—well, my cat got out." She frowned, raising her wand a little. He flinched away from the light it cast on his wasted face. "I live close by. Can you walk?"
Get up and walk, he told himself, but his limbs did not obey. She was going to take him and put him in prison, and he no longer cared. Even Azkaban was warmer than this night.
She watched him pityingly for another moment and, when he did not move, she pointed her wand at him. "Petrificus totalus," she said clearly, and he felt his limbs snap together of their own accord, more willing to obey her command than his own. "Levicorpus."
He was suddenly weightless, suspended three feet in the air by his own stupid spell. Hail pelted his face painfully, but he didn't have the will to resent it.
"I just don't think I could lift you on my own," she said apologetically. Then she wrapped her arms around him and, without warning, dragged him into the world between worlds, sucking the air from his lungs and the cold from his body.
They Apparated into the garden of a small, lonely hut that sat half-buried under snow.
"Let's try and get your feet under you," she said, supporting his body with her own as she released the spells she had placed him under.
He stumbled against her as gravity reclaimed him, but his balance held, and she opened the door of the cottage in front of them.
"Come in," she said gently. "I'll give you shelter from the storm."
* * *
It was cold, but he didn't care. He tossed away the end of his cigarette and lit another, remembering and trying not to remember.
* * *
Her cottage was as snug and cozy on the inside as it was lonely and dark on the outside. She seated him on a low couch and brought him Pepper-Up potion, a thick blanket and, most blessed of all, a hot cup of tea.
"You can sleep here tonight," she said, gesturing to the couch. "I—I imagine you expect me to call Professor McGonagall, or Kingsley or someone, but I won't. Harry told me what you—" she stopped quickly, her cheeks going pink. "When the storm passes, you can leave."
The storm would never pass, but he nodded, still silent, and drew the blanket more closely around himself, lying down to sleep. His last waking thought was a hope that perhaps she had slipped poison into the tea.
When he next awoke, the room was dark, the darkness of thick clouds and snow. Across the room he could see her neatly arranging a fresh log in her fireplace. Two delicate silver bracelets flashed at her wrists, highlighting the delicacy of her bones and the whiteness of her skin.
He wanted to speak, but had no idea how to begin—not with her. She was a mystery to him, this small, brilliant witch and her unexpected mercy. She had, of course, heard Potter's story and—what? She had stopped short of saying that she believed him innocent, but her actions certainly seemed to imply that she might. He wondered if she knew that the doe that had led them to the sword of Godric Gryffindor in the forest he had so recently left was his patronus. Everything between them felt strange, unresolved. He had no way of knowing where he stood.
Then she turned around and met his eyes, and he felt a pang of loss. In another world, a woman like this could have been his. Perhaps there would have been happiness and children and, though he hardly dared to name the emotion, even in his innermost heart, perhaps there would have been love. He slowly sat up, and felt a stab of pain in his forehead. Since Nagini's poison had entered his blood, he had not gone a day without feeling its thorn-sharp pains in his head and neck.
Without a word, she approached him, her every movement graceful. Even when she sat down beside him, he was speechless.
"Does it hurt?" she said softly, looking at his neck.
He nodded vaguely, his eyes drawn to a small gold flower nestled into her brown curls. A ruby glittered in its center.
Even when her small, white fingers reached for him and began to massage his achig head, he couldn't speak. Instead he closed his eyes in wonder as the pain, the endless pain that had followed him everywhere, began to ebb away. She must, he realized, be using some kind of magic. No simple touch could heal like that.
He opened his eyes again only when she stopped moving, and found that her face was only a few inches from his.
* * *
Again, he threw his cigarette away, and again he lit another. The writhing embarrassment and guilt that had followed him since that night rose up again, clenching around his heart and making him feel ill.
* * *
It almost seemed that he was helpless. She was so close that he could feel her breath on his face. Without thinking, without speaking, he leaned forward and kissed her soft lips.
She didn't respond in kind, she barely moved--but neither did she flinch away, and that was encouragement enough for Severus. He put his arms around her and drew her close, almost crushing her to his chest as he kissed her. He had never thought of her carnally before, never thought of her even as a woman, really, but here in this cottage, she was like a creature from another world, another life, and he clung to her desperately. Soon, to his wonder, she was returning his embrace, returning his kisses, and when his lips moved from her mouth to her ear, and from her ear to her neck, she moaned so softly that he might almost have mistaken it for the wuthering of the wind in the storm outside.
They fell asleep in a tangle of naked limbs, her cheek pillowed on Severus's scarred chest, their hands clasped together. He slept peacefully for the first and perhaps the only time since he had taken the Mark.
When he next awoke, the howling wind had ceased and sunlight filtered weakly through the frosted windows. She was no longer in his arms. Instead she sat a few feet away, hugging her knees to her body and staring at him with wide eyes. As he slowly sat up, he noticed the blood smeared on his thighs and realized what a terrible, terrible mistake he had made.
One look at her face confirmed it. He had trespassed too greatly on her pity and, God help him, on her innocence.
She spoke before he could, her voice high and brittle.
"I've packed food for you," she said, tossing her head in the direction of the small kitchen where she had prepared his tea. "It's enough for a week or so—longer, if you're careful."
He reached for his tattered robes and covered himself awkwardly, unable to meet her eyes and see the accusation in them. She looked away as he dressed, and said nothing even when he made his way slowly to the door.
"Goodbye," he said, his voice hoarse from disuse.
Hearing no answer, he opened the door and stepped out into the snow.
* * *
The cold of the stone wall was finally beginning to seep through his thick robes. He shook snow from his hair and watched as the last faint wisps of smoke disappeared into the snowy night. England was hundreds of miles away, and that night was even farther out of his reach.
He rarely allowed himself to think of going back. He was settled now, more or less. Leaving England had seemed impossible at first, and so he had remained in hiding, watchig from afar as they auctioned off his clothing and other belongings from Hogwarts in the Hogsmeade town square. Even that had not been enough to drive him completely away.
But when Hermione's first child had been born and he had heard its newborn screams cutting through the quiet air to reach the hedge from which he watched, he could bear it no longer, and he fled the country.
He turned and made his way down the tiny, winding path to his home. If he had a Time-Turner, some way of going back and rectifying old mistakes, things would be so different. If only he could go back to the moment when she and not her infant child was born, could convince himself to take another path, to change his destiny.
But he was not the kind of wizard to think about such things. He merely extinguished the tiny, glowing warmth of his cigarette, burying it under the snow and leaving only darkness behind.