Disclaimer: Not mine, per usual.

A/N: We've reached the end, folks! It's hard to believe. This story began as a writing exercise for me; seven years (and two children, four jobs, and two big moves!) later, it's hard to believe it's actually finished. I began posting it to hold myself accountable and keep myself writing, but I honestly never imagined I'd receive so many kind, encouraging reviews and messages in response to each chapter. All of that is what kept me writing; so thank you all, very much.

I also want to thank my wonderful beta, IvyAmelia, once again. Without her, this story would likely have stalled several times and could easily have ended as an abandoned WIP. I doubt she realized, when she offered to beta for me all those years ago, that she was in it for such a long haul, but I'm so grateful she stuck with the story, and with me.

Four months later

"Hogwarts reopens tomorrow," Harry said, dropping down across the table from Hermione in the kitchen at Grimmauld Place. Kreacher bustled up and poured him a cup of tea. "Ta," Harry said tiredly, giving Kreacher a faint smile before turning back to Hermione. "Are you going to the ceremony?"

"I don't think so," Hermione said, not looking up from the letter she was writing. "It conflicts with the board meeting for the Displaced Creatures Fund."

"A meeting that you set," Harry said pointedly, shoving his glasses up his nose.

Hermione set her quill down and looked at him. In his rumpled trainee-Auror robes and with a day's worth of stubble on his cheeks, Harry looked older than his eighteen years. "I don't want to be there, and more to the point, I don't need to be there. The Ministry has done a fine job of taking credit for a war fought and won by schoolchildren, not to mention magical beings who aren't even acknowledged as persons under the law."

"And they wouldn't put Snape's name on the memorial."

"And that," Hermione said, and dropped her eyes to her letter, where the lines blurred alarmingly. It was hard enough to stomach returning to Hogwarts at all, to see the half-repaired state of the castle and not flash back to those terrifying hours when it felt like the building was going to come down around their ears. It would be impossible for her to stand listening to the new Minister for Magic give an insincere speech on the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought against Voldemort when that same Minister had told Harry and Hermione flatly, when Harry managed to get a meeting with her a full week into her new position, that though the Ministry was grateful for all of Harry's "help with the problem of You-Know-Who," she regretted that due to the current political climate, it could not honor Death Eaters, no matter how complicated their true loyalties were rumored to be. And Hermione could not imagine standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the hundreds of witches and wizards who were expected to attend the ceremony, wondering who among them might still be working to reclaim the ground they had gained during Voldemort's time in power; who among them was merely content to slide back into apathy.

"Minister Applethwaite is a twat," Harry said, and Hermione laughed wetly.

"She's terrified you might harbor secret designs on her position," she said. "You know that if you'd expressed any desire to go into politics right after the battle, people would have been clamoring to make you the youngest Minister in history."

"I don't know if that's true anymore. People seem pretty complacent," Harry said. "Besides," he added, "I'm a lot happier being one of the youngest Seekers at Hogwarts' than I'd ever be as Minister."

"People are idiots," Hermione said fiercely. "Even I never would have thought the general public would be so… spineless so soon after Voldemort's death." Severus would have, she thought, and swallowed. Severus would have mocked the hideous, gilded new statue that had been hurriedly erected to replace the monstrosity Voldemort had commissioned for the Ministry's Atrium. The new statue depicted witches and wizards, some dressed in robes and others in Muggle clothing, holding hands and smiling with expressions that were so glazed and stupid, they looked like they had been drugged. Severus would have said that new statues, and ceremonies to honor the dead, were all very well, but when the Minister - who had been hastily installed by the Wizengamot in the days after the battle, her forty-year history of work in the Department of International Magical Cooperation making her an unobjectionable choice - true to her diplomatic roots, referred to Voldemort's supporters as "traditionalists" in her speeches, it was obvious that very little change had actually been affected.

"Well. Yeah." Harry scratched his nose. "I still wish you'd come, though. Ron said he still can't face Hogwarts, not even for this, and besides, it's going to be mad in the shop, George'll need his help."

"George isn't going, either?"

Harry shook his head. "Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are going, though, and Bill and Percy and Ginny."

"With Ginny there, you won't even notice I'm not," Hermione said with a faint smile. She looked back down at the letter she had been working on, heaving a sigh. "Anyway, I'm going to be up for ages revising this, I think. And then the meeting tomorrow, and then I've got that strategy meeting with the war orphans group the next day-"

"I don't know how you keep all your causes straight," Harry interrupted, rubbing his eyes. "You're doing too much. Not that that's anything new. And you're not even getting paid for any of it -"

Hermione sat up straighter. "Did you change your mind about the rent? I can get a job, too-"

"No, no!" Harry waved his hands. "Merlin, no. You know you can stay here as long as you need. I just worry that you're going to run yourself ragged."

She flushed slightly. "It wouldn't be unprecedented, I suppose," she muttered. Then, more loudly, "It's just… I have to keep busy, I'll go spare otherwise. Until the Ministry finally gives me access to Malfoy, there's so little I can do about Severus. And you know there's so much work that needs to be done - rights for non-human magical beings are largely nonexistent, and then of course so many families were torn apart by the war…" She trailed off, noticing the slightly odd expression on Harry's face. "Anyway," she said after a moment of silence, "Mrs. Malfoy's and Draco's period of house arrest is up in a week, so I'm writing to see if I can get a meeting with her, in case she knows whether Severus… in case she knows anything."

The odd expression on Harry's face deepened, and Hermione threw up her hands. "What?" she asked. "I can tell something's going on. What is it?"

He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again he looked so grim that Hermione could feel her stomach drop. "What?" she whispered again.

"That's probably a good move, writing to Draco's mum. I… I didn't want to tell you," Harry said. He tapped his fingers restlessly against the tabletop. "But I really don't want you to learn about it from the Prophet tomorrow either, so…" He took a deep breath. "We were told in training today - Lucius Malfoy is dead."

Hermione didn't make it to the meeting for the Displaced Creatures Fund, or to any of her other commitments for the next week. She had set herself a manic pace since she had found herself in the Great Hall screaming at a group of Aurors to just stop and listen as they tried to lead away Draco and Narcissa Malfoy. Then Mrs. Malfoy's voice rose piercingly - "Not my son, not my son!" - as she was dragged in one direction and Draco, grey with terror, was dragged in another, and Hermione, the red marks from Lucius Malfoy's nails still raw on her wrists, was left with a consuming desperation to get them free. If she could just get them free, Lucius Malfoy would tell her what he knew.

It had taken Harry - poor bewildered Harry, whose first response to learning about Hermione and Severus' secret relationship was, "But what about my mum?" - using his clout to get a meeting with the new Minister to get Draco and Narcissa out of Azkaban. But once the mother and son were returned to their home to wait out the months of their house arrest, during which time they were to have no contact with the outside world, it became clear that current occupants of Azkaban were off-limits to visitors, and not even Harry's influence in the aftermath of the battle was enough to change that. And so Hermione had spent frantic weeks writing letters, showing up at the Auror Department, talking to anyone she thought might have a modicum of pull in such matters, all the while trying to ignore the hysterical voice at the back of her head that cried out, Severus, Severus, Severus, over and over again.

It was a peculiar sort of self-inflicted torture, living at Grimmauld Place, surrounded constantly by reminders of him - the kitchen, where they had sat across from each other at the Order meeting over the holidays, and then again after Dumbledore's death, where she had first kissed him; the library with its uncomfortable settee; Sirius' bedroom; the back garden. Hermione felt her breath catch and hold at the most surprising times as Severus' metaphorical ghost appeared to her when she was least expecting it. She had stopped explaining the sudden halts in the flow of her words during their conversations; how could she explain to him that she had just felt the dry press of Severus' mouth, the pressure of his long fingers around her wrist? That she had heard his voice and felt the fine hairs rise at the nape of her neck? She lived her days to the rhythm of his name, and spent her nights whispering to her pendant, waiting for the night that it would grow warm in response.

And now Lucius Malfoy was dead, and all of Hermione's energy seemed to die with him.

He would never know that she and Harry had managed to secure his family's freedom. And she would never know whether he truly had saved his friend, or whether he had merely been using her all along.

She spent the week after learning of his death shut up in her room, which, being one of the dreary spare rooms at Grimmauld Place, only served to cement her despair, for she had not thought redecorating a valuable use of her time. Curled up under the bedclothes, the hopelessness she felt reminded her of nothing so much as the Dementors, who had, astonishingly enough, been returned to their posts as Azkaban guards mere weeks after Voldemort's fall. It shouldn't have surprised her that Malfoy died, she thought dimly, not when she remembered how very ill he had looked even before being sent back into the Dementors' care. And yet it did. So much time had passed with no word from or about Severus; it felt foolish to hope, and yet she kept telling herself, Malfoy knows where he is. Malfoy knows.

But Malfoy was dead, and anything he did or didn't know, dead with him.

Harry whisked the covers off of her one morning, leaving Hermione shivering in the cool air, blinking up at him stupidly. "What are you doing?"

"There's someone downstairs to see you," Harry said briskly. He was dressed for Auror training. "I've got to go, but since he isn't allowed to have a wand as part of his probation, I don't think you need my help anyway." He tossed Hermione her dressing gown. "Good luck," he said, and left.

Hermione thought briefly about tidying her hair, but couldn't muster the energy to really care about her appearance. She made her way to the sitting room on bare feet, tying her dressing gown around her as she went. When she pushed open the door she stopped dead in astonishment, for there, being served tea by an obsequious Kreacher, was Draco Malfoy.

"What are you doing here?" Hermione said. She ignored Kreacher's disapproving scowl.

Malfoy pushed his hair back from his forehead. "Potter demanded it," he said drily. "And these days I daren't ignore an order from the Saviour." His grey eyes flicked over her disheveled form briefly, and he raised an insolent eyebrow.

Hermione felt the heat of a blush working its way up from her chest, and she crossed her arms defensively, moving to sit across from him and crossing her legs. Her memory supplied a brief image of Severus on Christmas Eve, also wearing a dressing gown, his own legs crossed, but she blinked it away.

Malfoy took a sip of his tea, affecting an air of nonchalance. But there was something brittle in his expression, and purple smudges under his eyes. Hermione sucked in a breath, then, and on the exhale said, too quickly, "I'm sorry about your father."

Malfoy's fingers clenched around his teacup, but he didn't otherwise react. "Potter said you'd been trying to see my father. That you had a question for him. It must be disappointing for you that he died before he could answer it."

"I- oh, that's not why I said I was sorry, and you know it!" Hermione snapped, goaded. She took a shuddery breath to calm herself - This isn't going well - and added, in a quieter voice, "Your dad died. I can only imagine what you must be feeling. I'm sorry."

His eyelid twitched. "What's your question?"

Hermione looked at him, twisting her fingers together. Her heart was suddenly thudding at an alarming rate. "I… it's about Severus. Um. Snape. Severus - Severus Snape."

The eyebrow again. "What about him?"

She pressed her fingers together harder. "Your father… indicated… that he might have helped Severus somehow. I don't know how. But… I need to know if it was true. If Severus survived, and where he might be now, if he did."

Malfoy stared at her for an interminable moment. "Why?" he asked finally. "Why do you want to know?"

Desperate hope leapt in Hermione's chest, and she struggled to force it down, to keep her voice even as she replied. "Because I care about him," she said.

A flicker of something passed over Malfoy's face, too quickly for her to interpret it. "You call him 'Severus,'" he said abruptly.

Hermione fought against a scream of frustration. "You're stating the obvious."

He snorted and ran a hand through his hair, which slid through his fingers before falling immaculately back into place. "I don't know anything for sure," he said finally, and Hermione closed her eyes against a wave of sudden pain. "But-" her eyes opened, "-it would not surprise me if my father did try to help Professor Snape. Our family owes him… rather a lot. And he… I had suspicions about his loyalties after last summer when he stayed with us in our home. He said some things that… Well." He visibly shook himself and gave her an accusatory look, as though she had forced the moment of vulnerability out of him.

"That's all you can tell me?" Hermione asked desperately. She leaned toward him, imploring. "Please, I just… I have to know. Please."

Again, Draco's eyes flickered with some unnameable feeling, and then he sighed. "Look, Granger - that really is all I know. For sure, anyway. I… Okay, there's one more thing, just a possibility, but… I shouldn't be telling you this," he muttered, and glared at her again. "I wouldn't be telling you this, even knowing what I - owe - you and Potter, except that I saw Snape when my aunt was… When you were…"

"Being tortured," Hermione supplied, trying to ignore the way her heart was trying to strangle her.

Another glare. "He came in with my father near the end. He was… I can't really describe how he looked. Agonized, maybe. And I knew… I mean, it seemed impossible, ridiculous, but I knew that there was something - something between you." He looked at Hermione, suddenly fierce. "I never told anyone. My mother didn't see then, and I never told her, and I could have gone to the Dark - to You-Know-Who and possibly regained favor for my family, but I didn't tell him, either. I didn't betray Snape."

Startled, Hermione could only gape at Malfoy for a moment. "He said he was there," she finally said, her voice betraying her as it shook.

Malfoy cupped one hand over his mouth as though trying to physically hold back his next words; they emerged muffled, but audible nonetheless. "Joffie, one of our house-elves, was waiting for Father when my mother and I were released. She said she couldn't tell either of us why, only that it was important. Father must have given her a task, or told her something, and forbidden her from telling anyone else about it."

Her heart was pounding again. "And you think it had to do with Severus?"

Malfoy raised his hands in a gesture of uncertainty. "I don't know. What I do know is that Joffie said she had been to our property in France to… take care of something. That's all we could get out of her before the head-banging began."

"Severus," Hermione breathed. She stood abruptly. "I need to speak with her-"

Malfoy shook his head, and Hermione sank slowly back onto her seat. "Why not?"

"It won't do any good - she's loyal, you see, and she won't tell you anything without Father's permission, and now…" He swallowed. "Even if he were there, she wouldn't tell you."

"Then I'll-"

"You'll what, Granger? Threaten her with force? Hm?" Malfoy set his teacup down and shook his head reprovingly. "Not very in keeping with that club you started back in school."

Hermione opened and closed her mouth several times, then finally settled for shaking her own head. "That's not what I meant. You know that."

He shrugged. "I suppose I could give you the benefit of the doubt. The way Potter told it this morning when he stormed into my house, you did the same for me back in sixth year." He continued before Hermione could formulate a response to that. "Mother sent another elf to France - since we are, of course, confined to English soil for the time being - with instructions to tell her everything going on at our home there, including anything Joffie might have been doing for Father. He didn't find anything, of course, but Mother thinks it was to do with Snape. She said Father was too upset after sending Snape to the Dark Lord; she thinks he must have called Joffie to him at some point after that, before it was all over."

"No one ever suspects the house-elves," she murmured, thinking of Dobby. She could feel herself trembling with suppressed emotion, and she hid her fingers in the pockets of her dressing gown. Then she frowned. "Why didn't you all run?" she asked. "You may not have killed Albus Dumbledore, but your family played host to Voldemort, however unwillingly, and your father escaped Azkaban after what happened at the Ministry our fifth year Why didn't you run? I mean, you had this property abroad-"

Malfoy scowled. "Run how, exactly? Maybe you didn't know, but our assets were frozen when Father was imprisoned the first time, and certainly weren't returned when he escaped. We have no friends who would have dared shelter us after the Dark Lord fell, and if he didn't, well, nothing could save us if we'd run, then. And we would have been easily discovered if we fled to our home in France. We were," with a sneer, "as Snape would have put it, fucked."

"But no one would search your other property if you were all accounted for… so there would be no reason for Severus to be found there." She sucked in a breath, trying to stop cruel hope from blooming behind her ribs.

Malfoy huffed a humorless laugh. "That's the theory," he said. "Whether any of it's true or not…" He shrugged. "Honestly, I figure it's better off we don't know."

"How can you say that?" she demanded. "You admitted yourself you owe him-" "And if Father saved him, I'd say our debt is paid. If not… Well, you can't pay a dead man. And Mother gave Joffie clothes. It was too risky, having her doing Father's bidding when we couldn't know what that meant."

Hermione just stopped herself from giving in to the impulse to slap him when she saw the tightness to his expression. Instead, she breathed deeply, slowly, then said, heavily, "So it's over." A choked sound escaped from her throat and she turned slightly away. "I know… I know he wouldn't be safe here anyway," she said after a moment. "The Minister made that quite clear when Harry and I met with her. If they won't even memorialize him when he's considered dead, I can't imagine they would consent to let him out of Azkaban if he is alive. I just need to know whether or not he's all right. This not knowing… " She forced herself to stop talking, and cocked her head. "You know, I've known you seven years, and we've never had a real conversation before."

"And we probably never will again." Malfoy rose to leave, shaking out his robes.

Hermione stepped back out of his way, and watched as he walked toward the door. When he reached it, he stopped and looked back at her over his shoulder.

"So we've you to thank for getting out of Azkaban."

Hermione shrugged, feeling uncomfortable. "I suppose."

Malfoy looking at her, unblinking, for a moment. "How did you manage it? Especially since you say you couldn't have done for Snape?"

"Easy enough, since your mother was never actually a Death Eater and you were Marked before you came of age. Severus, the Minister said, made his own choices. Not only did he kill Dumbledore but he tortured children, you know, while he was Headmaster."

Malfoy looked truly angry at that, and Hermione added, "I… might have also said something to the Minister about Harry and I being, ah, concerned about the number of Voldemort's appointees who had retained their Ministry positions after his death. I told her that seeing the, um, great injustice of your incarceration undone would go a long way toward making us feel that the new regime really had everyone's best interests in mind. And I might have implied that Harry might feel compelled to try his hand at politics himself, otherwise, or, at the least, discuss his concerns with the Prophet."

Malfoy let out a startled laugh. "I'm… surprised, Granger. I thought you were above blackmail."

In spite of herself, Hermione felt a wry smile tugging at her lips. "Really?" she said. "How little you know me."

Nothing had changed, and everything had changed. Hermione's emotions dipped and rose rather alarmingly over the next few days. She burst into tears when Harry arrived home from training that night, throwing her arms around him and sobbing out Malfoy's story. Harry held her tightly, listening to her, and Hermione felt a surge of gratitude for his friendship. Ron had barely spoken to her since the battle, but Harry, despite his obvious discomfort at the thought of Hermione and Severus being together in any sense of the word, had not only taken her in but had helped her search for the truth of what happened. She clutched at his collar.

It was hard to put aside her obsessive search, but she had few other options now that Lucius Malfoy was gone. She still spent a good deal of her free time trying to imagine where he might be - in hospital? Living as a Muggle, either in France or elsewhere? He couldn't be in another Wizarding community, he had become far too infamous for that. Sometimes she felt an irrational anger burbling up at the thought that he might be existing somewhere in the world, and yet hadn't contacted her. Though perhaps he had lost his pendant - perhaps he felt it was too dangerous to send an owl, which might be intercepted. She remembered his face when he told her Azkaban had been his Boggart, and shivered. No matter what, she couldn't ever let them take him back there. She couldn't.

He could be in a Muggle hospital. Mr. Weasley had required stitches when Nagini bit him - perhaps Severus had, as well. Especially if Hermione's clumsy spellwork hadn't held… She closed her eyes against the image of his bleach-white face and the dark pool of blood spreading out beneath him. She should have thought to transfer him to a Muggle hospital. Oh God, why hadn't she? So stupid, she hadn't thought…

I could search the French hospitals, she thought wildly. She could. There had to be hundreds of them, but she could do it. But when she voiced this thought to Harry, he looked at her with something that felt uncomfortably close to pity.

"Hermione - I want him to be alive as much as you do, but we don't even know that he was taken to France. Or that he's still in hospital, if he was admitted months ago. And besides, he hasn't contacted you - I think it's time to accept that either he can't, or, for some reason, he doesn't want to. "

If Hermione hadn't loved Harry so much, she would have hated him in that moment. And she called the hospitals anyway, spending two days straight on the phone. There were forty-four in Paris alone, and she lost count of how many throughout the rest of the country; none of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, had record of a patient named Severus Snape, and when she asked about patients admitted with snake bites, she was told it was against policy to release such information.

She rarely allowed herself to imagine the most likely scenario - that he was simply, irrevocably, gone.

"Your memory should return in time," he was told by a doctor wearing a long white lab coat. Muggle. The word drifted across his mind, only to dissipate like smoke. He blinked.

The doctor spoke to him in French. She told him about the damage to his vocal chords, warning him with expansive Gallic hand gestures not to try speaking yet. She discussed blood transfusions, the potential necessity for surgery at some future point. She asked him yes or no questions - Do you feel pain? Numbness? Tingling? - and he nodded or shook his head in response to each one. He couldn't understand everything she said, and he wondered how long it had been since he learned to speak French.

You are in the hospital. Do you remember how you got here? He shook his head. Do you remember your name? You did not arrive with any identification. Another shake, fear gripping at the back of his neck. Your arrival here was as mysterious as your injury; you can recall nothing of either? Nothing of family or friends?

The fear intensified, and he felt his breathing quicken; then suddenly, without warning, the fear was gone as completely as though a door had slammed on it in his mind. The sensation was disorienting in its familiarity, and he found it difficult to concentrate on the doctor's words as he strained to catch that thread of familiarity and follow it to its source.

A hospital official came to speak with him more than once. He wasn't sure how to answer the most basic questions, and he struggled to follow the other man's rapid French. His own thoughts were in English, and he wondered whether he should somehow indicate that to someone - his doctor, the physical therapist who came every day to work on the dead weight of his left arm and leg, one of the nurses who brought his meals - though any attempt at speech was still exquisitely painful. And something else - something he couldn't entirely place, but which felt oddly important - warned him against giving out information when he, himself, already had so little.

When he slept, his dreams were weighty, bewildering things.

When his memory began to return, it did so in frustrating fits and starts. Voices and faces, mostly, and attached to them various unaccountable emotions. Brief glimpses of scenery, of a dilapidated house on a run-down street; of a castle. As weeks passed, the bits and pieces began to fill in and become somehow more solid. The house's front window, streaky with years of accumulated grime, had a cracked pane; the castle had worn flagstone floors and rough stone walls with torches up just high enough to cast eerie shadows rather than useful light. He had a glimpse of a large black pot on a wooden work table as it bubbled and steamed; he saw an armchair and worn patterned rug before a wide hearth; the wide, placid surface of a lake by moonlight.

He was still no closer to remembering his name, his occupation, his place of residence, however, but as his body grew stronger - his left hand able to grasp objects, his left leg to cautiously bear his weight, the rawness of his throat requiring less and less medication to be bearable - he began to feel a corresponding strength building inside of him. It buzzed along his blood vessels, warming him from the inside out, and it felt familiar even though he could not explain what it was, even to himself. He only knew, somehow, fundamentally, that it was important, and that he oughtn't mention it to anyone.

He slept a great deal, which his doctor assured him was normal under the circumstances. He woke one afternoon from a hazy dream that he couldn't quite remember as his eyelids flickered open, but which left him feeling dizzily unsettled. Something about a young woman with wild hair standing on a cliff top. And -

- an elf?

His eyes had opened fully, and he stared for several heartbeats at the creature perched on the chair at the end of his bed. It had a long, bumpy nose and enormous ears and eyes that bulged in their sockets. It was wearing what appeared to be an old-fashioned infant's bonnet on its head, along with an abject expression.

An elf.

His brain felt clunky and utterly incapable of understanding what he was seeing. That the creature before him was an elf was, he was certain, true; but how he knew that, and how that could be -

"You can't be real," he said, and then winced at the rasp of his own voice.

The elf shook its head. "Master is telling Joffie to take care of Professor Snape," it said, its eyes welling with tears. "And then Mistress is giving Joffie clothes. But Joffie is a good elf; Joffie promised Master to take care of Professor Snape and Joffie will take care of Professor Snape even if Master is being dead -"

Starbursts seemed to be going off inside of his head - he ground the heels of his palms into his eye sockets, and the elf continued talking, heedlessly.

"Joffie is bringing Professor Snape's wand. Joffie is good elf. Joffie knows Professor Snape must have his wand if he is to be safe."

"Professor - what-"

There was a noise from the corridor, and the elf startled. Then, dropping something onto the blanket covering his legs, it vanished with a snap of its long, knobby fingers.

He sat very still for a moment, staring at the thing at the end of the bed as if waiting for it to vanish, too. Then, very carefully, he picked it up between thumb and forefinger. He flicked it experimentally.

His memories didn't precisely rush in after that, but only, he suspected, because his own mind was doing something to block certain of them, as if trying to keep itself safe - though he remembered magic with a brutal, wrenching sensation the moment he touched his wand and felt that vague buzzing he had been feeling deep inside himself coalesce all at once into a startling, focused power.

He spent the rest of the day with the wand hidden under the bedclothes, one hand touching it at all times. Why the elf had brought it to him now was beyond him, and it was difficult to feel gratitude what with the peculiar sensation he was experiencing of being suspended between two distinct senses of himself. There was the self who had been in the hospital all these months - injured, raspy-voiced, and ostensibly without magic; and there was his other self, his past self. The self who owned a wand, and had once seen a castle. The truth of who that self might be was terrifying; he had not realized how padded, how safe he ought to have felt in his ignorance. Now, as memories pressed insistently against the - something - that was holding them back inside his head, as magic hummed through his veins, he was nearly overwhelmed with fear. Something inside his head chanted, again and again, No, no, no, and pushed back against the impending onslaught.

That night, utterly unable to sleep, it was only the knowledge of how horribly it would hurt his raw throat that kept him from screaming. The pressure in his brain was building, making his head throb; his fingertips tingled where they brushed against his wand. Finally, in the small hours of the morning, something - a small voice, a whisper of a recollection, perhaps, or perhaps simply the invention of his beleaguered mind - murmured, Please. Take them down.

He felt the ghost of an old sensation - someone else's magic brushing against the wall his mind had built within itself, and he opened his eyes as the wall fell to pieces.

On Christmas Eve, Hermione Apparated to just outside the Burrow's fenced-in yard. There was a light dusting of snow on the ground, though the smoke rising cheerily from the house's crooked chimney promised cozy warmth within. But Hermione stood for a few moments, breath visible in the freezing air, and felt the fear and loss she had been holding at bay for weeks, ever since she decided to leave, threaten to overwhelm her. She looked at the pine bough wreath on the Burrow's front door, its worn plaid ribbon precisely tied into a jaunty bow; she shivered at the familiar rise of voices squabbling and laughing coming from just inside. Then she hefted the packages she held in her arms and pushed open the gate.

The front door opened as she made her way up the walk, and Bill stuck his head out. "Hey, Hermione!" he called, and held the door open for her. "Good to see you." His smile stretched the scars left by Greyback on his otherwise handsome face.

"You too," Hermione said, smiling in turn as she edged past him into the house where she was greeted by the warm, homey smells of baking bread and a crackling fire. She stood for a minute, looking around, then accepted Bill's offer to take her packages to the sprawling heap that already surrounded the little spruce tree taking up a corner of the lounge. She shrugged out of her coat and hung it on one of the many haphazardly-placed pegs beside the door, and turned to follow the sound of chatter into the kitchen, where she hovered in the doorway, feeling awkward and wondering if she should not have come.

Mrs. Weasley was rolling out dough at the counter, where George lounged on a stool. As Hermione watched, he pinched a bit of scrap dough, earning him a rap on the knuckles by his mother. At the kitchen table sat Ginny, Ron, and Harry, hands wrapped around mugs of something that steamed gently.

Mrs. Weasley spotted her first. "Hermione, dear!" she said, and bustled over, enfolding Hermione in a brisk hug. She stepped back, holding Hermione's shoulders, and said, "Oh, goodness, look at you, what a mess I've made!", and began brushing ineffectually at the streaks of white that now dusted the front of the younger girl's jumper.

"It's okay," Hermione said, laughing and feeling a bit wobbly. She pointed her wand at herself and removed the flour with a wordless spell, then stepped more fully into the room, Mrs. Weasley's arm firmly around her shoulders.

"It's so good to see you," the older witch was saying. "It's been far too long, dear."

"I know - I'm sorry I haven't been by," Hermione said, feeling guilty. She had scarcely seen the Weasleys at all since Fred's funeral, more than six months earlier. Flicking a glance at the table, she saw Harry and Ginny had risen to greet her; Ron was still seated, looking at her with an unreadable expression.

"Well, no doubt you've been busy; Harry told us you were sitting your NEWTs."

"Yes, and thank goodness that's over," Hermione said. "It was good of Professor McGonagall to get the Board to offer them early to those of us who couldn't - who couldn't face returning to school, but I don't think I've ever studied so much in my life."

"And that's saying something," Ginny said, grinning. She took Hermione's arm, drawing her gently away from Mrs. Weasley. "Happy Christmas! C'mon, let's get you some of this grog - it's Mum's special recipe."

Ginny ladled out a mugful of the strong, spiced drink and settled Hermione at the table across from Harry, who saluted her with his own mug before casting a rather obvious concerned glance at Ron. A minute later George loped over and joined them, laying his folded arms along the table and resting his head upon them.

"Careful, Hermione," he said, squinting up at her. "That stuff's lethal." He peeked over the edge of Ron's mug and raised an eyebrow. "Slow down, little brother."

"Bugger off," Ron muttered, and took another gulp of his drink.

"So what's this I hear about you and Australia?" George asked, kicking Ron under the table.

Hermione sipped her drink gingerly, wincing at the bite of the alcohol. "I think I've found my parents. I mean, it was easy enough what with Muggle directories, but obviously I've got to actually go there to see for myself."

"And then what?" Ginny asked. She had her head on Harry's shoulder. "I should have thought you'd want to retrieve them first thing after the war."

"I… did. Of course I did. But there were… I just… I had to settle some things here, first." Hermione brushed her fingertips against the vial that contained her parents' memories; she could feel Ron's eyes on her pendant, attached to the same chain. "And. Well. I'll see what seems best to do when I get there."

"What about Crookshanks?" Ginny asked.

Hermione blinked against a sudden stinging at the corners of her eyes. "He's going to stay with Harry. Believe it or not, he and Kreacher seem to have taken a liking to each other." She shook her head, making her hair fly about her face. "I hate to leave him."

George nudged her. Then he scratched at the side of his head where his ear should have been. "This is getting too dreary," he said. "Let's drink more and open presents."

Later, Hermione sat on a bench on the periphery of the Weasleys' lounge, her presents piled in her lap. She had to catch an early Portkey and knew she ought to leave now if she wanted any chance of getting sleep, but she was loath to relinquish her friends' company, particularly as she had no clear idea yet when - or even if - she would be back. Harry, thoroughly drunk, had caught her around the waist an hour earlier in a clumsy hug.

"Love you, Hermione," he mumbled into her hair. "Make sure you write. You've always been so -" his jaw cracked as he yawned - "so good at writing."

"I will," she promised, smiling. "Thank you for everything - for so much. But I'm not leaving yet. We'll say a proper farewell later."

Harry pulled back, blinking at her face. "It's not farewell," he said. "It's just a temporary goodbye. 'Cause we're gonna see you again soon."

Now, Harry was passed out in an armchair, snoring loudly. Mrs. Weasley had clucked and covered him with a worn afghan. George had drawn pictures on his face.

A shadow crossing her vision made Hermione glance up; there stood Ron, hands in his pockets, looking exceedingly uneasy. It had been months since she'd even seen him; the last time was when Harry brought him back to Grimmauld Place one evening, and that had been so spectacularly uncomfortable for all of them that Harry hadn't repeated the experiment.

Now, as he sat down beside her on the bench, exhaling a little sigh, she had an unsteady sense of deja vu, remembering another time they sat beside one another, leaning against the hard, bumpy walls of Shell Cottage. She swallowed, waiting for him to speak.

When he did, his voice was rough, the movement of his arms and shoulders loose. He had obviously also had quite enough of Mrs. Weasley's grog. "Hermione," he said, and looked at her, Adam's apple bobbing. "I shouldn't've avoided you for so long. I shouldn't've… Harry told me about Snape, about everything you've been through to find him, and I still didn't…"

She shook her head. "I haven't exactly been seeking out company," she said. With one hand, she stroked the warm wool of her Weasley jumper where it was spread out over her thighs. "It was so much easier to bury myself in revision… when I accepted I wasn't going to find Severus, I just…"

"I'm sorry about him," Ron said after a pause. "He was… well, he saved Harry a lot, and it sounds like he was, er, good. To you."

"We don't know that he's dead," she said, but her pendant was cold against her chest.

Ron pressed his lips together and nodded, clearly trying to look supportive. "Right. Of course not." He dragged a hand through his hair, which was much shorter than it had grown while they were on the run, so short Hermione could see his ears and brow and the nape of his neck. It made him look older. "What's your plan, then? You've actually found your parents, right?"

"I think so. I hope so. But I don't have much of a plan. I mean, if I can, I'll restore their memories, of course, but… well, it's a bit nerve-wracking."

"I'd imagine." He exhaled. "Look, I - I just want you to know. You can stay here for Christmas, if you'd like. Ginny wanted to ask you anyway, but Mum and Dad weren't sure if it'd be a problem, you know, because of me. So I want you to know. It's not. A problem, that is."

Hermione felt her mouth stretching involuntarily into a smile, and she ran a hand across her mouth, trying to keep her amusement from showing in her expression. "Thanks," she said, as gravely as she could, as soon as she could speak without laughing. She'd forgotten how earnest Ron got when he was half-drunk. "But I… well. If I can, I think I'd like to spend Christmas with my parents. One way or another."

Ron nodded, and moved to stand up. "That makes sense." He added, "Are you sure you don't need help? Y'know, on your trip?" He looked as if he couldn't decide whether he wanted her to accept his implied offer or not.

"No, it's okay. Thanks, though. Harry offered, too, but…" Hermione shrugged.

He gave another brisk nod. "All right. I guess I'll go, er," and he made a vague gesture with one hand, looking profoundly uncomfortable.

"All right." Hermione offered him a small smile, and then, as he turned away, impulsively grabbed at his sleeve. "Ron? Thank you, truly. It means a lot that you offered."

He looked back down at her. "I knew when he was bitten," he said abruptly. "Snape, I mean. I knew then that… you cared about him, though I didn't understand why or how or… But anyway. So I shouldn't have kissed you back at the school. I already knew."

Hermione stared at him. "You - how?"

Ron shrugged. "The way you reacted when he was attacked," he said as he turned away again. "It reminded me of - it was the same way I reacted when you were being tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange."

That night, she opened her pendant notebook and touched her wand-tip to one page. "I'm not saying a real goodbye to you," she whispered. "I won't ever do that, unless I know… and even then, I don't know that I could truly let go. But… I have to live, somehow. And I can't really do that now. Not like this. Not when my every moment is consumed with wondering what avenue I could pursue to find you that won't get you thrown in prison if…" The tears coursing down her cheeks were hot, and her chest heaved with the effort to hold in her sobs. "If you're alive and you just haven't contacted me - well, I won't pretend to like that, but it's better than you not being alive, so… I'll accept it. If I have to. I just miss you so, so much. So much. You'd think it would get easier, but it's like - it's this hole I can't seem to fill, no matter how many things I stuff my days with. It's always there, because you're not. I can't really imagine not ever seeing you again, but. Well."

She swiped the back of one hand over her cheeks. "Malfoy thinks you're alive," she said. "Or at least, he thinks his father tried to help you. So. Right. I'm going to go now. I can't keep talking to you when you never talk back. I'm driving myself mad. I've got… things to do. I think I've found my parents." A shuddering sigh, and then she said, all in a rush, "I love you. And I want to hear from you, no matter when, no matter how much time passes." She paused, thinking of Harry. ""This isn't farewell," she said firmly. "It isn't. It's just a- a temporary goodbye."

And she shrunk her pendant for the last time.

The next day found him lying curled on one side, staring at the wall. His eyes were deeply shadowed and rimmed with red, and he did not acknowledge the nurse who brought his dinner. He rolled onto his back when she left after fussing in an infernal manner with his pillows and stared instead at a crack in the ceiling.

He was alive. Alive. Despite everything, despite the sheer improbability of it, he was alive, and he was free. His left arm was pale and unmarked.

"My name is Severus Snape," he said to the empty room, but it was not Severus Snape's voice that spoke. The voice that issued from his scarred throat was painfully hoarse.

My name is Severus Snape, he thought again, and shut his eyes.

With the crumbling of his Shields, he had remembered his own name. He remembered his parents, and his boyhood home, and he remembered Hogwarts. He remembered the Dark Lord, and the snake, and he touched the gnarled scar tissue on his own neck and shuddered violently. He could not recall how he came to be in a French hospital, though from what the elf had said, he suspected Lucius had had something to do with that, for who else would have sent a house-elf to him in his time of need? Who else knew he was in the Shrieking Shack at all? He tried not to remember the elf's words about his master being dead, but they cropped up in the darkest hours of the night and left him shaking.

He remembered Lily, and then, like a particularly savage explosion inside his skull, he remembered her son. Her son, who was almost certainly dead, too, sent to his death by Severus, himself. The boy had left him for dead on the floor of that stinking shack, which was, he thought with a grim twist of his mouth, only fitting. He remembered the sensation of purging as his memories leaked from his every orifice; there was almost a violence to the loss of them, a violence that he now suspected had triggered his mind to protect itself from further damage as best it could.

The thought of Potter, dead - or, worse, of the Dark Lord, triumphant, despite his bare arm indicating that this was unlikely - was enough to leave him desperate and gasping.

And in a flash at once beautiful and terrible, he remembered Hermione.

The sweetness of lucky potion on his tongue - the improbable appearance of Potter after the Dark Lord's exit. The touch of hands upon him, dimly felt; the sound of crying. Hermione.

Her warm mouth, her gentle hands, her fierce protectiveness. Her propensity to talk too much, too fast. How unexpectedly she had become the essential thing in his life.

Hermione. Had she survived whatever horrors occurred at Hogwarts after his own injury? So many months had passed since then - where was she now? There was a moment in which Severus was certain that, had she known where he was, Hermione would have found him; and then, insidiously, his old insecurities crept in. Perhaps she knew, and had chosen not to come. Perhaps she had thought the better of everything that passed between them.

Perhaps she is dead, a voice whispered nastily inside his head, and Severus lurched to his feet before he was aware he meant to do so. He could not face the thought that he had survived and she had not; he wobbled rather alarmingly, touching one hand to the wall to steady himself, and reached for the metal cane standing beside his dinner cart. He pressed the button to summon a nurse.

The nurse arrived and looked startled to see him out of bed on his own. She opened her mouth to speak but Severus forestalled her, pointing his wand at her head and casting a small Suggestibility Charm. The magic flowed smoothly from his fingertips to his wand; the sensation was exhilarating - it was not until the spell did work that it occurred to Severus that, being the first he had cast for more than half a year, it might not have - and he watched as the nurse blinked for a moment before heading off to gather the clothing and possessions with which he had arrived at the hospital.

When she returned several minutes later, Severus gritted his teeth against the indignity of needing her help out of his hospital gown and into his old clothes, his left arm and leg still stiff. His shirt and frock coat were spattered with blood, but his Cleaning Charm worked surprisingly well, given how long the stains had had to set into the fabric. It felt strange to be wearing shoes after so long without them, and he flexed his toes inside the stiff leather while the nurse waited patiently, her expression just vague enough to put Severus uncomfortably in mind of the Imperious Curse, the Suggestibility Charm's more potent kin. Then she handed him a baggie of small items he must have had in his pockets. Severus drew them out one by one and tucked them away in their proper places: seven knuts and two sickles - he wondered what the Muggles had made of those; the empty flask of Felix Felicis; and, finally, something that glinted dully silver. His Order pendant.

"Thank you," he said to the nurse in careful, schoolboy French, staring at the pendant where it lay cupped in his palm. He glanced up at her. "You have been very helpful."

She smiled at him. "Merry Christmas," she said, and then her eyes went unfocused and dazed as he hit her with a silent Oblivate.

Though intellectually she had known it would be much warmer than England, Hermione was still unprepared for the wall of heat into which she walked when she left the Portkey station in Melbourne. It was early evening, which felt mildly disorienting as it had been six 'o clock in the morning when she left London. She blinked against the brightness of the setting sun, holding tightly to her beaded bag. The station official had mentioned there was an alley the next block over that was safe to use as an Apparation point, and after a moment's hesitation Hermione started off in that direction. The streets were fairly deserted, probably, Hermione thought, because it was Christmas, but she still kept her wand discreetly at the ready. Even after so many months, it was hard to shake the feeling that she might be in danger.

The alley the station official had spoken of was conveniently set between two buildings without windows overlooking it, and with a wide brick stairwell leading up to a side entrance to one of the buildings that was perfect for ducking behind to Apparate. Hermione did so, clutching her bag to her chest and breathing deeply for a moment. In. Out.

Briefly, she considered erecting her mental Shields, but felt, deep down, that that would make her a terrible coward. She needed to face whatever she found, needed to face all the fears that she'd avoided considering too closely over the past months - her parents utterly furious with her once she restored their memories - she remembered too well the expression of betrayal on her mother's face the day she'd taken them; her parents cutting her off once they realized the magnitude of what she'd done; her parents deciding they preferred their life in Australia. She might not be able to restore their memories - all her carefully researched, well-thought-out plans might turn out to be useless when she tried to apply them practically. Or - worst of all, the possibility that gave her nightmares, that had nearly convinced her not to come at all, to leave her parents to their new life without her - she might irreparably damage their minds if she botched up the restoration of their memories. The thought was enough to send waves of nausea rolling through her.

Hermione gave a final long exhale. At the very least, she had to see for herself that her parents were all right. She looked quickly up and down the length of the alley to ensure that she was still alone. Then she raised her wand and prepared to Apparate.

Outside, Severus moved as quickly as he could, left leg dragging slightly and cane thumping against the pavement as he strove to put distance between himself and the hospital. It was a cold, drizzly morning, and church bells were ringing somewhere nearby. At the sound of them he stopped walking for a moment, head cocked as he listened, and only then did the nurse's words fully penetrate. Christmas, she had said. It was Christmas. Somehow, that fact felt rather bewildering and he sank onto a bench, dizzy with whirring memories. One year ago, he had been opening the horrifying "gift" left at the foot of his bed; a year before that, he had discovered Hermione's present of Muggle tablets. The thought of them set his neck to throbbing, and he wished, for a moment, that he had had the presence of mind to have the nurse raid the hospital's storage closets for tablets he could bring with him.

Severus tilted his head back and closed his eyes, feeling the light patter of raindrops over his face and throat. He was overwhelmed by the knowledge that he had nowhere to go; no matter which side had won the war, he was quite certain he would not be welcomed easily back to England. He had no Muggle money, no phone. He had his wand, which was something; perhaps he could presume upon his friendship with the Malfoys, but if Lucius truly was dead, perhaps Narcissa and Draco were, as well? Or if not dead, at least imprisoned. And if they were, by some miracle, free and unharmed, they mightn't appreciate the appearance of Dumbledore's murderer on their doorstep.

Severus shivered. His clothing was no match for the bitter wind.

"Fuck," he muttered, bringing one hand up and running it across his mouth. It had been a long time since he had done something so spectacularly thoughtless. He had nowhere to go.

There was one obvious avenue - the one that had sent him reeling from his bed; the reason he was sitting now on a bench in the December rain. Hermione. His right hand was still clenched tightly around his Order necklace, and Severus opened his fingers, staring down at the smooth, familiar disc of it. He recalled Hermione's eyes as she implored him to let her charm it; the weight of her arms around his neck and shoulders when she hugged him. His heart thudded dully inside his chest; there was a frightening finality to the prospect of contacting her and receiving no response.

He touched the pendant with his wand, watching, mouth suddenly desiccated, as it expanded. He thumbed backward through the miniature pages, breath sharply inhaled when he saw that there were messages he had not read, brows coming together when he saw how very many of them there were. At last, he reached the last message he remembered receiving from her, the one in which she told him Draco was master of the Elder Wand.

He placed a finger on the page to mark it. He drew his wand, and cast belated Imperturbable and Warming Charms on himself, sighing slightly with relief as the drizzle and wind ceased to touch him.

Then he opened the notebook again, and began to read.

She looked up at the house, then down at the address she'd scribbled, an address she had memorized after looking at it so many times since having her parents' new names pop up instantly during her search at the dim little Internet cafe a few blocks from Grimmauld Place. She'd been psyching herself up for a long day - and for paying the exorbitant fee of ninety pence per half hour - but she hadn't counted on how easy it was to find people in the Muggle world. A second to type her parents' names into the search engine; another to click on the first directory result; and there they were in black and white, their names, a Melbourne address, and a phone number. It was rather as though Muggles had their own brand of magic.

And now she was here, standing stupidly in the gathering dusk. The house was newish, built in the last decade, at least, very similar to the other homes in the neighborhood. Very different from the home they had shared with Hermione, with its noisy furnace and hundred year-old woodwork. She stared at the door, painted a tasteful grey, and thought how her parents would have hated this neighborhood, hated the sameness of the houses, the postage-stamp yard, the lack of vibrant color. Fear gripped her, the sudden thought that, perhaps, she had taken more from her parents than their memories of her.

Then she straightened her shoulders. Face it, she thought. Face it, whatever it is. She climbed the three steps to the door, raised her fist, and knocked soundly before she could talk herself out of it.

For a long moment there was no response, and Hermione half-hoped her parents were out, perhaps at a friend's house for the holidays. Then she heard footsteps, and a light went on, visible in the transom window above the door, and then the door was unlatched and her mother was peering out at her.

It was her mother, those eyes, the lines around her mouth. Her hair was shorter, but she smiled and Hermione thought for a dreadful moment that she might burst into tears.

"Yes?" her mother said. "Can I help you?"

Hermione sucked in a breath, then launched into the words she had rehearsed again and again in her head. "Hi," she said, her voice too bright. "Um - I'm Hermione Granger - I just wanted to wish you a Happy Christmas. I'm new to the neighborhood, a couple of streets over, and Nancy Drake" -another name she'd found online, of a woman who lived a block away from her parents- "told me there were other Brits in the area." She tried to smile, and suspected she'd only half-succeeded. "I thought perhaps you'd be on your own, too, this Christmas."

Belatedly, she held up the tin of Christmas cake she'd baked the day before. Her mother's smile grew more genuine.

"Why, how lovely to meet you, Hermione!" she said. "I'm Monica. You're right, we are on our own today. Won't you come in? We'd love the company." And she ushered Hermione inside, closing the door firmly behind them.

… Severus - Severus, please - if you can, please, please tell me you're all right. Tell me where you are. Please be all right. Please...

… I know you might not even… be there… but I have to talk to you. For longer than I was willing to admit, you've been the one I've wanted to tell things to. And everything is just… so sad right now.

We put Fred to rest yesterday. It was worse than you can imagine. So solemn. So… wrong. Everyone was crying, even George, and I thought - I couldn't think of anything except how much Fred would hate it. I kept waiting for something spectacular to happen, something worthy of Fred - Whizbangs or-or something, but there was nothing…

… I don't know where you are, but you can't come back home yet. Harry and I met with the Minister today - and I can feel you rolling your eyes as you read this, but truly, Harry is one of your most passionate advocates, with Hagrid a close second, not that the Minister would ever listen to him. She's awful, by the way. The Minister, I mean. And she made it clear that you would not be pardoned, though I'm hopeful that given enough time, perhaps we can change her mind. Or have her replaced…

… I spoke with Kingsley today. He was ever so apologetic, but he said there really was no loophole allowing Azkaban prisoners to have visitors. The Dementors create something of a liability, he said. I don't care if he fought for the Order, I came this close to hexing him…

… It's been two months since you disappeared. I wish you would contact me. Just so I could know you were safe. I'm trying so hard to keep - to keep control, but I'm so scared…

… Do you ever… think about that night? On the cliff? I think about it constantly. Though sometimes I find myself wondering whether it was a particularly vivid delusion. Whether I've run mad and just don't know it, and everything to do with you since Sixth Year was a delusion. It seems ludicrous that you and I… and you flew, I can still feel your arms and the wind, and then after… It was real, wasn't it? Please tell me it was real…

… There are so many things I should be focusing on right now, but all I can ever seem to think about for more than thirty seconds together is you. Not my parents, or the war orphans or displaced creatures or squib rights… Not even my NEWTs, which Professor McGonagall is offering soon. Harry says that's a sure sign I've lost it entirely, that I can't focus on revision. I didn't want to tell him that instead, I keep thinking about kissing you. About how badly I want to talk to you. He's supportive, but he doesn't like to hear such things…

After cake and tea and small talk about her parents' early retirement - "We just decided one day, well, are we going to live our dreams while we're still young enough to enjoy them?" - Hermione was beginning to feel a bit as though she might shatter. It was all too much - her parents' faces, so familiar and dear - so politely interested in her, in the young British woman who moved into the neighborhood. She excused herself and hurried to the loo, where she sat down on the porcelain toilet lid and began to cry.

They were happy. That much seemed obvious. She knew what her mother's face looked like when she was pretending for the sake of company. And her father had been going on and on about his new-found passion for surfing. Their home was comfortable, if different than what they would have picked when their surname was still Granger. They were making friends, if a trifle slowly. They loved the climate.

How could she take this from them - take another life from them, another life they loved? Hermione clutched the vial in which their memories swirled silver-bright, and rocked back and forth. She understood the theory behind replacing the stolen memories, but if something were to go wrong…

She'd done her work well; they seemed truly to believe they were Wendell and Monica, British expats who had given in to their yen for sun and sand. Shameful as it was to admit, Hermione realized she had been half-clinging to the hope that she would discover there was a daughter-shaped hole in their lives; that they knew, somehow, that something was wrong. That they needed their old memories to feel whole.

But there was no hole, at least not one she could see.

He was supposed to be here, she thought. Severus was supposed to help her restore her parents' memories. If he were here, she wouldn't hesitate to try.

"Oh God," she whispered, sounding choked. The edge of her pendant dug into her palm and she had a brief thought that she needed to talk to Severus, now, she must or she would burst. But he wouldn't be at the other end, she knew, and it was that knowledge that made her suddenly unable to catch her breath. She moaned softly, bending her head and drawing the chain out to its full length and pressing the smooth, cool disc against her forehead. Words were forming behind her teeth, crowding her mouth, and despite the senselessness of it she couldn't hold them back, gasping them out to the empty loo.

"Severus - please, oh please. I'm here, I'm here with my parents. And it's all wrong. I mean, it's not wrong, it's right, and that's what's so wrong - they're happy. They're happy, and oh, I wish you were here, I can't do it, I can't, I can't muck about with their memories, but I can't leave, either - you always mocked Gryffindor courage and mine's gone, it's just gone, I can't, I can't-"

She folded herself in half, breasts and belly pressed against her thighs, fingers tangled in her hair, and wept silently.

Severus heaved a shuddering sigh when he finished reading Hermione's final message, and ran a shaking hand through his hair. She was alive. They were both alive. And she wanted him, still. The thought was enough to make him lightheaded.

A snide little voice in the back of his mind asked whether she would want him like this - lame and scarred and verging on voiceless, a fugitive without prospects. He clenched his jaw and thought of her when she stood bare before him, her own scar a pale slash across her chest, her eyes at once vulnerable and bold, and told the voice to fuck off.

He couldn't return to England, she had confirmed that much. And she - she was possibly on her way to Australia, assuming that was where her parents had remained.

He felt tipsy with the knowledge that she was out there; that she wanted to hear from him. Severus read her last words again - This isn't farewell. It isn't. It's just a- a temporary goodbye - and his heart cracked a little. He took in a great lungful of cold air and blew it out in a frosted gust, feeling suddenly calm.

He touched his wand to the notebook, and spoke.

Hermione rose unsteadily from the toilet and rinsed her face with cold water, patting it dry on the hand towel hanging from a peg beside the sink. In the mirror she looked worn, wrung out, and desperately sad. Vaguely, she wondered how long she had been in the bathroom, and then decided it didn't matter. Her parents would think her odd, or perhaps worry a bit about her digestion, but it wasn't as if they would ever see her again. If they ever looked for their new British neighbor, they wouldn't be able to find her.

Courage, she thought. Courage enough to do the right thing. Courage enough to leave them behind, to let them enjoy the new life they'd built for themselves.

Courage to live out her own life without her parents. To live out her life without Severus.

She dropped her pendant back down so it rested against her sternum and tugged on her jumper to straighten it. She tucked her wand carefully away. She reached for the doorknob; her hand was shaking rather badly.

And then, as she touched the knob, she felt a flare of warmth against her chest. Her head came up, meeting the astonished, desperate gaze of her reflection in the mirror. With fumbling hands, she dug out her wand and unclasped her pendant.

When she looked, dazedly, at her reflection again, it was smiling.

The End