A/N: Thank you, thank you, for all your love and support. I dropped a hint about this back in chapter 8; applause to your careful reading if you caught it. Be sure to venture over to my fic-blog for my final thoughts: (seinde . tumblr . com) and to discuss yours.
Flourish and Botts was unbearably crowded, wizards and witches practically bursting out of its tiny windows. The bookshelves and walls were bending awkwardly in an uncomfortable curve, trying to accommodate all of its precious customers. Hermione squeezed her way to the new publication section, nearly knocking the spectacles from a bewildered old man's face in the process.
Arms held protectively around her purse, she fought to get to the new releases. All the pushing and shoving was quite difficult as the crowd grew denser toward the back. To her disappointment, none of the shiny new books looked particularly interesting. Not interesting enough to gift anyway—the new Rita Skeeter book inevitably peaked her curiosity and annoyance, but that was another matter entirely. Weaving her way out of the bookstore, Hermione wracked her mind for options.
Leaving the Wizarding alley behind, she stepped into the snow filled Muggle street. The middle aged witch pulled her cloak close, careful to keep her wand hidden. It was just the beginning of January. She only had until that night to procure a book, but had yet to find a suitable one. Across the street, a small Muggle bookstore caught her eye. There was an odd sparkle about it.
The basement shop had dingy framing and cardboard window signs, but there was an inexplicable honesty about the place, as if it was a word of unapologetic truth in the industrial machine surrounding it.
Would he be offended if he received a distinctly Muggle book? She worried that he would, but then again, she'd seen his collection of gifts from her, and there were definitely a fair number of Muggle texts.
Once inside the cozy little store, she knew she had made the right choice. There was a huge handwritten sign by the door with "Anniversary Edition of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five". This would no doubt amuse him for his 25th birthday. Hermione giggled at the appropriateness and grabbed a copy on the way toward the register. With no currency, she quickly transfigured her Wizarding coins into Muggle ones. It would revert back, yes, but it was still gold, she reasoned; everyone was entitled some laziness.
The girl working the registered looked at her clothing oddly, but refrained from commenting. There were many people dressed in this style around the area, long capes and hoods, perhaps it was a new vogue. The young girl chewed her gum and gave Hermione some change which she refused to accept. What a strange woman, the cashier thought.
Hermione sat with her book and Time-Turner waiting for midnight alone.
It'd been many years since she'd let him go. She'd never managed to quite forgive Ron or go back to the Ministry. Order would never be something she equated with justice. Her life was hers to live, and she made peace with the fact that the most she could do was make his a little better. But she still missed him and still felt an ache for what was and disappointment for what could have been. To ease her heart, she started a tradition.
Every January eighth she allowed herself the indulgence of using an unregistered Time-Turner to go to him at midnight, bearing a birthday gift. Whatever book caught her eye or reminded her of a phrase he had said, she purchased and found a birthday to gift. Her first was "The Little Prince", given when he was ten. She never stayed and never allowed herself to be seen. It was her way of saying goodbye slowly, keeping the balance between them. He had loved her a lifetime while holding his silence, and it was only right that she should do the same.
The clock hour hand inched at a irritatingly slow pace.
Impatient, she twisted the dial to 1985 prematurely and forced her mind to reach for Severus, thinking of him in every detail possible. Hermione let her will and longing take the wheel, believing in them more than her rationales. Heart over mind, she wordlessly let him be her Polaris.
Her living room carpet vanish, replaced by the dark heather rug in his little house on Spinner's End. Hermione was seated in an armchair facing the dimly lit fireplace. Dying embers snapped as they dissolved slowly into the darkness. Putting a hand on the armrest, the witch heaved herself up from the chair and walked to the stairs. She stepped slowly, each rise of wooden step a mystery to be felt and not seen.
In the bedroom, she could see his slumbering form in bed. He twitched every now and then—an uneasy sleep. She walked to the bedside, navigating by streams of moonlight, and placed the book on the space beside his pillow. Just as she let go, he rolled over, arms out stretched over the covers as if to reach for someone.
It took every fiber of her being to fight the overwhelming desire to stay.
Faint midnight light flickered as an owl flew by the window. Hermione leaned down and placed a kiss on his brow, whispering her love. When she pulled away, she was surprised to so see he had woken. Half dreaming and still drowsy, he blinked at her, not comprehending.
"Madge?" he murmured, reaching for his wand.
"Shh, go back to sleep, Severus," she said softly and took his wandering hand in hers. The contact was familiar and bittersweet.
His black eyes wandered from her nightgown to her now-short hair, and he stirred, trying to raise his head. "Your—"
"—dreaming, darling. You're dreaming."
She stroked his hair, fingertips brushing his face gently. Giving him a small smile, she traced his eyebrow. The motion forced Severus to involuntarily close his dark, sleep-glazed eyes. Raising her wand, she whispered, "Oblivate."
He did not open his eyes again.
Turning the key half of her Time-Turner, Hermione did not permit herself a last glance, knowing she could never leave if she looked; she was at once both Orpheus and Eurydice, trying to walk out of Hades.
When Severus awoke in the morning, he picked up the book and opened the first page with an amused smirk. Hopefully, this one would be a better read than her last gift of Neitzsche. She was always so sentimental. In small, neat writing, was the message:
May everything be beautiful, and may nothing hurt. Happy 25th birthday.
He held the pages up to his hooked nose and tried to catch her lingering scent, but all he could smell was the ghost of acid and ash from the printing press.
Many years had passed since he last attempted to catch her in the act. As a boy, he used to secretly stay up the whole night, waiting for her to appear. She never once did. The books simply sprung into being at some crucial moment when he was feeling drowsy. Yet last night, he felt as though he had seen her, but could not recall what she looked like, nor the circumstance through which she graced him with her presence. The only detail he could draw up was the warmth of her touch. Unconsciously, he traced the path of her fingers on his brow. It was rather like an elusive and faceless dream.
But it mattered little to Severus.
He knew they would meet again.
That was just the way things were. There was tragedy, there was poison, there was serenity. Every day brought about its share of uncertainty and doubt, but he faithfully bore through it knowing there was at least one thing in his life that never failed to be true.
He loved her and would see her once more.