A/N: Bit of a romp to lighten the end of winter, anyone? Can't promise there won't be serious moments (and that I won't up the rating later), but hey. For now? Have a kitten.
Thanks, as always, to the Furies: Anastasia, Melenka, Luna, Annie Talbot, Machshefa, and Indigofeathers.
Does love have the power to cancel time? Only the cats know for sure, and they can't talk.
His first thought upon opening his eyes was, That is not my ceiling.
His second was that he was, in all probability, dead, and that he should thus not be seeing a ceiling at all. He didn't know what he should be seeing in its stead, but a ceiling was rather more mundane than anything he might have imagined.
He lay still, listening, and heard only silence. No sounds of battle – it must be over by now. He closed his eyes and wondered who had won – the Dark Lord or Potter…
He started to his elbows in a rush of remembering. Had he really given his memories to that – what had he been thinking?
Oh, right. That didn't matter; he was dead.
At that realisation, relief flooded his chest, and he collapsed back to the floor, scraping his elbow on the way down.
Hm… perhaps he wasn't dead after all. Perhaps she had gotten his instructions and followed them, countering Nagini's venom.
Yes. That must be it. She'd obviously chosen to keep his survival a secret, leaving him to awaken in solitude – free, finally, to decide his fate for himself.
It had been rather a long shot. Clever girl.
In the years leading up to the battle, he had had ample occasion to consider his likely demise, and, for a time, he had indulged in wondering what might come afterwards. Something like sleep? Some kind of afterlife?
He had, for a time, enjoyed torturing himself with thoughts of seeing Lily again, but had quickly learned to squelch such fantasies as soon as they started. His afterlife and hers would not mesh, as hers would inevitably include James Potter.
As always when he thought of James Potter, he growled low in his throat, and the sound of his own voice brought him back to the present moment, where, once again, he found himself looking at the manifestly cobwebby ceiling of the Shrieking Shack.
He flinched reflexively away from the no doubt equally unsanitary floor. Definitely not the afterlife. Had he not growled, just now?
He remembered with absolute clarity the feel of Nagini's fangs at his throat, the infliction of the wounds which, life-saving measures aside, should technically have rendered growling quite beyond his capabilities.
But he had, without question, growled.
So. She had indeed found the information he'd hidden in the sword – found, understood, and expanded on it. Clever, clever girl.
In his own mind, he had taken to calling it "the memo," as he expected it to have no greater effect than any of the Ministry's ridiculous paper-airplanes. But in her capable hands, it had.
He smiled slowly, his hand rising to his throat, where he found the skin smooth and whole.
His smile broadened.
"Well done," he said, his voice equally smooth and whole in the empty air around him. He closed his eyes and lay still, enjoying the peace, quiet, and solitude of having, for the first time in forever, nowhere to be.
The sunlight moved to his eyelids, and he winced, raising his hand as a shield.
A hand that should have been not only bloody but, more to the point, visible.
Seven years to the day after the final battle, Hermione sat in a restaurant with Ron Weasley, feeling as though she had played this same scene before.
"I'm sorry, Ron. I'm just not…"
But here his hopeful look always forestalled her next words, which were, of course, "… in love with you." She'd never found the courage to speak them aloud and always extricated her hand from Ron's, finishing lamely, "… ready."
This time was no exception, and she picked up her water goblet to avoid seeing the look of cheerful determination that always crossed Ron's features as he announced that he would wait.
"You're the witch for me, Hermione," he declared, seemingly oblivious that he had uttered the same statement with equal conviction for the last four years.
She never debated this point. Aware only that her throat was scratchy, she sipped her water.
It had always been easiest to continue as they had at Hogwarts – comfortable enough in each other's presence and sharing experiences only they and Harry had shared. They had never needed to explain to each other why certain sounds, tastes, and smells were best avoided, and she enjoyed the simple ease of knowing the whys and ways of each other as they moved from Hogwarts, where they had returned to finish their final year, to London, where she had taken an apprentice position in the wizarding branch of the British Library, and Harry and Ron had gone into Auror training.
"Join us, Hermione, do," Ron had cajoled several times during their last year at school. "We make an unbeatable team. We can fight the good fight with the best of them."
"We are the best of them," Harry always pointed out.
To be sure, she had thought, wondering what there was left to fight. Outwardly, she'd merely shook her head and smiled.
"Growing soft on us?" the boys had teased her. "No more taste for adventure, for the rugged life, living by our wits?"
"No more camping," she had countered firmly, "and the wits were mostly mine, thank you."
Now, in her twenty-sixth year, she found herself rather pleased with her life – with her comfortable flat in a smart but inexpensive street just off Diagon Alley, with her job, her books, and her gloriously, brilliantly, wonderfully non-canvas ceiling.
She had yet to stop liking having solid walls sensibly about and refused to hang any art that remotely resembled a landscape.
As always after one of their dates, Ron walked her home and, after their usual quick snog – really, he had improved since Hogwarts – he stuffed his hands into his pockets and sauntered away, whistling, his optimism untainted by a refusal that had become almost as comfortable as their relationship itself.
Same old Ron, she thought mildly, reaching for her wand to unlock the tall, black door that contrasted sharply with the rest of her pale Georgian building.
Focused as she always was when working even the simplest of spells, she did not note the slight lightening of a shadow at the end of the street.
Where Severus Snape had been and what he had been doing for the last seven years, only he knew. Were he the sort to share, and had anyone known of his existence and thus been in a position to be told, the story would go something like this:
Swearing: two months.
Scowling: a year and a half.
Slipping undetected about Hogwarts and spying on his former colleagues: one week, after which he concluded that, as amusing as draining Minerva's inkwell when her head was turned might have been initially, it quite lost its appeal when it became apparent none of them had yet realised he had no portrait.
Sniffing with a superiority Lucius Malfoy might have envied: four and a half hours.
Realising that no one at Malfoy Manor could see him either: point oh six seconds, or thereabouts.
Swearing, scowling, and roaring, simultaneously: twenty-four hours.
Severus Snape had spent the next six months plotting revenge and the rest of those seven years deciding which was the greater crime: Harry Potter's, for being Harry Potter, or Hermione Granger's, for being Hermione Granger and still missing the obvious.
This proved quite the dilemma, and it was the kitten that decided it.
For reasons he could not begin to fathom, six years and fifty-one weeks after his death, during which time neither his absence nor his presence seemed to register to any living creature, a small mewling at his heels in a pre-dawn Knockturn Alley drew him up short.
He looked down to see a pair of large golden eyes staring at him with hopeful adoration.
"I've nothing for you," he muttered, turning and sweeping his invisible cloak in the manner of a wizard whose business was far too urgent to give a moment's notice to a small, fluffy creature, however wide and innocent its eyes.
"Meee," the kitten responded, scampering happily after his retreating cloak.
"'Meee'?" Snape repeated scornfully. Ridiculous cat couldn't even meow properly.
"Meee," the kitten agreed, pouncing triumphantly on a corner of the cloak and pinning it to a cobblestone. "Meee!"
"You can't do that," he admonished it. "It's invisible."
The kitten, who was seized with a sudden urge to wash its paw, ignored him.
"Ridiculous." Snape snorted, nonetheless watching as the kitten waved its paw behind its ear and across its whiskers.
The kitten spared him a brief, vaguely condescending glance before returning to its paw-waving.
Having nowhere else to be, Snape watched, bemused, until he realised he was watching it with more intensity and irritation than, strictly speaking, it warranted.
Recalled to himself, he reflexively checked his surroundings – still empty, save for himself and the kitten – and traced his reaction to its source. Then a slow smile spread on his invisible face, and he chuckled.
So pleased was he to have finally decided his dilemma that he had celebrated by slipping into the Leaky Cauldron's cellar, where he learned that ghosts are immune to firewhisky but that he was as susceptible as a house-elf to butterbeer.
Thence began a week he could never quite remember, after which he spent the final twenty minutes of the seven years since his death disentangling himself from all manner of inconvenient things in a dumpster.
The last of these was the kitten, who was standing on his chest staring at him with worried eyes.
He peered back, and it responded with a gleeful "Meee," its throaty purr rumbling straight through his bones and into his skull, triggering a headache that would have flattened a Hippogriff. He ignored it – both headache and kitten. He had no bloody idea why this kitten was the first creature in seven years to evince any awareness of his presence, but just then he didn't care.
He clambered out of the dumpster, heading straight to the end of Hermione Granger's quiet, comfortable street. The ghost of Severus Snape may have been hung over, but his mind was determined, and his will was steel.