Forever

By tearsofphoenix

Standard disclaimer applies – it's all JKR's

Many thanks to Whitehound, who edited with her unique care, and to my patient previewer Lady Memory. Without their precious and friendly help this story couldn't be here.

Chapter II

May 1999

This time, she didn't Apparate directly into his home as she usually did, nor did she write to announce her arrival.

She landed near the place where she had first seen him alive, nearly a year ago.

There, on the riverbanks of the beautiful An Ruachtach, she had experienced one of the greatest joys of her life… before being rejected by a harsh reply.

It was late spring, now, and the place was shining with lights and colours: it looked different from the sight that she remembered but it was splendid anyway.

After a few moments of contemplation, Hermione began to walk slowly but determinedly towards the old house where Snape had decided to hide himself.

Despite her resolution to focus only on the present and on her hopes, she couldn't avoid a last memory flashing in her mind. It concerned their most recent encounter and the memory to some extent guided her steps as she relived it.

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April 1999

"This time you can't give me 'nothing' as an answer," he had greeted her on that occasion, looking at her pale face and at her unhappy expression. "Something has clearly happened to you".

"You're right, as always," she answered, adding with a faint smile, "And I would like to share my thoughts with you, if you don't mind a long talk and possible nonsense."

He invited her to sit. Despite her state of distress, Hermione noticed that there was new furniture in his austere living room: a light brown velvety couch, small but nice and comfortable.

He didn't join her on it, though, but took a chair and waited patiently.

"I had a final quarrel with Ron. We've broken up. I shouldn't be surprised, but it hurts, all the same." She looked at him, tentatively, with tear-filled eyes.

He was watching her silently, as if inviting her to tell him more, so she went on.

"I have loved him since the first time we met. They were there, on that train, Harry and Ron, each of them so excited and yet so clumsy. Ronald couldn't ever see the dirt on his nose without my advice! I had to show them true Magic, you know? A bit of swish and flick and Harry's glasses were Reparoed…"

Snape raised an eyebrow, but succeeded in keeping his mouth shout. She didn't notice.

"It has always been Ron: he was the one who needed to be considered, the one who craved respect and praise. With Harry, I shared so many things: our Muggle side, a mutual loyalty that didn't need ratification… But Ronald was different. He was the one completely immersed in the magical world. He knew so many things, a knowledge that all the books in the world couldn't have taught to me… and he always protected me, defended me…" she continued, regret and longing showing in the sound of her voice. "There must be something, a sort of charm that blinds our eyes and hides the truth when we are too young, don't you think?"

Again he didn't answer, but she felt she had his whole attention.

"I was used to his tempers, and to his joking side: they didn't bother me any longer, well, at least not too much… or so I thought. But then, lately, he has started to behave as if all these years meant nothing, always suspicious about my absence, as if I had secret dates with some Irish students, throwing his humiliation in my face every time I succeeded in having the last word. And I tried to change, but perhaps it was too late."

"Why are you telling all this to me?" he finally inquired, softly.

"Because I feel you are my friend, Severus. And not just because I can call you by your given name. You have been so kind as to notice and ask, and speaking to you makes me feel better…"

"Of course, I was the one who asked you the reason for your clearly distressed state… but why all these confidences, all these details?"

He didn't end with "which I haven't asked for", but those unexpressed words seemed to hang in the air, just as if they had actually been said.

She tried again. "I feel confused, and you have become almost a confidant for me, these last few months… That's what friends are for, isn't it? Of course I've got Harry and Ginny, but it isn't the same now… and I have to say that my being unavailable so often without a convincing explanation has affected their trust in me, as well as Ron's," she added.

"I assume it is all my fault, isn't it? I suppose that this deplorable situation is due to your promise to keep my existence secret."

"No, of course not! Well, perhaps a bit…" she hesitated, without noticing the slight change in his expression, too engrossed as she was in her worries.

"Then there is a simple way to make happiness come back, Miss Granger," he said. "Just cease your visits and apologise to your friends… as I told you, only a very small number of promises are worth the suffering."

She looked at him, disoriented and a bit hurt at having been addressed in such a formal way.

"But… Severus, you have misunderstood. We've broken up, I said so, and that wasn't our first quarrel, but the last of many! I'm not going to 'cease' anything, as I want to stay friends with you."

"Then let's see how long your good intentions will last, Hermione. I would suggest, for my and for your sake, that you should… ah… take the time to meditate further about your choices. My life is full at the moment, and I can assure you that I won't miss your presence."

She had hardly been able to conceal the tears, at those statements. Feeling even more hurt now than when she had arrived, she had nodded in dismay, then she had abruptly got up and headed for the door, barely hearing the bitter words that he had whispered at the last.

"Soon you'll thank me… I'm sure."

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May 1999

Those last words were the ones that resounded in her ears now: so, in the hope of having previously misunderstood their real meaning, she arrived at his door, and knocked.

His look of surprise was priceless, even though it didn't last, as it was almost immediately replaced by an unreadable expression.

"Hello, Severus."

"Hermione… do enter," he answered briskly.

"I bet you haven't read this, yet" she started, handling the infamous biography to him.

The lightness in her tone didn't betray the fear she had of making things worse. But he took a quick look at the book and smirked.

"You win. But I had already got a fair idea of the blasted thing from the advertisement published weeks ago!"

"This explains your scowling photo on the cover, then" she replied, glad for the good disposition that he seemed to display. Emboldened, she went straight to her point.

"I've missed our talks."

"I'd be a liar to say that I haven't," he answered, not realising how his present sincerity contradicted the last bitter words with which he had bidden her goodbye in their last encounter.

"However, don't worry," she hurried to reassure him. "I won't bother you with the long tale of what has happened since our last meeting."

She smiled, trying to keep a light tone. Then she glanced at the book that he was still holding in his hands, and she couldn't repress her need to know any longer.

"It is true, then?"

He frowned inquisitively and she swallowed under his gaze: but then she went on, determined to find the answer that she was seeking.

"It is true that… that you loved Lily and you always will?"

Snape stared at her; then, perceiving that there was more behind her query than mere curiosity, he replied earnestly.

"I haven't posed this question to myself for a long time. But, for an even longer time, I have been sure that she was the only one I dared consider a friend. So, yes, it's impossible to deny how much I loved Lily and how much I'll always love her…"

She blinked.

His words had a acrid taste, but she couldn't let him know how much she had hoped to hear a different answer; so, she went on, trying to keep a light façade.

"I understand, Severus, that mine was a very private question. And had anybody told me, a year ago, that one day we would have had this kind of conversation, I would have thought that they were mad."

He seemed to weigh her words, and she felt her agitation grow at his silence.

"You know," she tried again, "Today I Apparated to the place where I first saw you after the end of the war, and remembered how awfully that meeting ended… so, now I'm so grateful for your confidence! And I hope we will be friends… forever."

"Yes, well, I don't regret that day either, nor your visits. Should I gather that you have solved your difficulties?"

Still too concentrated on keeping her feelings under control, she answered quickly, without giving him too many explanations.

"Yes, yes, I have, Severus."

Then, feeling her composure definitely crumble, and searching for an excuse for a dignified exit, she added hastily, "It's late: I'm sorry, but I have to go".

He didn't reply, but stared at her with his peculiar gaze. She lowered her head, avoiding those too perceptive eyes of his, and awkwardly ended, "I just wanted to know if we were still friends".

Sensing her anguish increase intolerably, Hermione finally turned to the door.

"See you soon, I hope," she whispered, and she was gone.

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He hadn't really understood what had just happened; in a way, he was feeling that, for a wizard considered one of the best in reading minds, he had perhaps failed to live up to his fame.

Hearing her saying that she needed to go, and that things were being resolved, he had been sure he understood her meaning: she was happily getting back together with her Weasley, and there were no more troubles in paradise anymore.

But, then, why had she still had that anxious and saddened look? And why had she come to see him?

He knew that his words had been what had sent her away, a few weeks before. So, when Hermione had once more arrived at his door, he had expected her to show anxiety. But she hadn't displayed such feelings, at the beginning, and they had both started talking again as if everything were right.

Then, just when she had assured him that her problems had been solved, she had changed; confused, he had let her go away without asking for further explanations.

During the days of her absence, when he had had a lot of time to think and to feel even more the weight of his loneliness, he had imagined that when Hermione came back she would be serene and lively.

But then, on the contrary, when they had finally met again, when they could have finally talked of what they had missed of each other during that time, when he could have put his thoughts into words, something, somewhere during that short encounter, had gone wrong, or so it seemed.

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A few meetings later, he was absolutely certain of his failure.

She was bravely trying to conceal her true feelings, but she didn't always succeed in keeping up her act, and he could easily detect her anxiety.

Her uneasiness showed up through little things, like her slight flinching when they accidentally brushed against each other, an unexpected blushing of her cheeks, or when she suddenly and inexplicably turned silent.

She had never reacted like that earlier, and he felt that her behaviour wasn't due to a sudden revulsion, nor to a sort of possible regret towards her ex boyfriend.

And "ex" he was indeed, as Snape had learned when the truth had casually slipped out. But, to his surprise, she had displayed neither bitterness nor the sad expression he had noticed in their previous encounter; as a matter of fact, her face had revealed only an unfeigned nonchalance.

That day, he remembered, they had begun by talking of her studies.

"I'm very happy to have chosen an Irish University!" she had exclaimed, "even if it is an obscure one. "I'm not sure if it'd be so easy attending a more famous one, for a Muggle-born like me…"

"You were always more than prepared for exams at school, and you were ready to sit them ages before they took place," he had answered.

She had reacted by beaming at his words, but then-

"Well, yes, but that isn't exactly what I meant. Old prejudices against Mudbloods are still going on… and not all the pure-bloods would react with the same intensity my ex boyfriend displayed when someone offended me with that name, I bet… my relationships here are much more friendly," she had ended, and he had been so shocked by the unexpected revelation disguised in her words, that hadn't reacted as he always did to the use of that infamous title.

On the contrary, she had suddenly realised what that insult must recall for him, and had covered her mouth in shame, anxiety veiling the light in her eyes.

He had immediately tried to reassure her.

"A war was fought and won to cancel that discrimination, Hermione… and you should be proud of the role you had in it."

Yet his words had elicited only a feeble little smile from her, and he had suddenly felt as if his kindness was adding distress, instead of lessening it.

Then she had gone and, lost in meditation, he had relived in his mind all the memories he had of her, the many moments they had shared, the way in which she had slowly grown to become so strangely important to him.

Looking around, he noticed the many small changes into which she had little by little lead him, and without any need to use spoken suggestion… Through her, he had understood that his presently frugal existence could do with some slight improvement.

He had settled into a new and simple life in Ireland, having reached a convenient agreement with the old owner of the house where he was living now, and for whom Snape prepared the potions needed to keep him healthy. Lately, a few neighbours had also started to ask him for his potions, but he was finally beginning to realize that what had started as a simple way to afford his meagre expenses couldn't continue forever, neither as a way of living nor as a job.

Every part of his house, every place where they had been together, was a reminder of the young woman: their first encounter, when she had looked at him and at the green phoenix through the window, so mesmerized that she hadn't even noticed the heavy rain soaking her… their first conversation, during which, little by little, he had ceased to be able any longer to dismiss her questions as condescendingly as he had always done when at Hogwarts… the moments in which he had felt the desire to made her comfortable in his company, and therefore had actively started to search for ways to make her feel at home… a whole collection of memories showing Hermione's presence in his life was fluttering in front of his eyes, until he knew, and finally understood, that her behaviour and her change weren't due to somebody or something happening elsewhere… and that more feelings than hers were at stake.

It became imperative, then, to cancel from her eyes that shade that nothing seemed to be able to dissipate, lately, and to clarify: it was about time to make things right, he decided, about time indeed.

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June 1999

Harry was looking disbelievingly at the parchment in his hands.

Since the day when that damned Skeeter had published that tripe about Snape, all kinds of oddities had begun to spread, giving the Aurors' department a lot of overwork. Right, but this… this wasn't something he couldn't ignore or pass to a colleague.

In the unmistakable spidery handwriting that he remembered so well from his schooldays, the letter said:

"Potter,

I'm tired of all the rumours circulating concerning my disappearance.

I'll be at Spinner's End tomorrow, at midnight. Since this will be the first occasion of my return, I'd rather talk to you than to a squad of reckless coppers, if you'll meet me there.

Severus Snape"

If this was an attempt by one of the few Death Eaters still at large to lure him into a trap, it was a very good one, the young wizard thought.

But, if the message was true… well, he couldn't miss the meeting that up to that moment had been so cruelly denied to him, to both of them, by destiny and history.

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Hidden under his invisibility cloak, he saw the wizard approach and enter; Harry was grinning at his own cleverness in going there an hour before the appointment, when…

"You can reveal yourself, Potter" Snape purred, without even turning his head, and pretending to be still looking at the bookshelf that he had examined for some minutes, apparently unaware of the other wizard's presence.

"Did you really expect to take me by surprise by arriving earlier? Not doing so would have been a reckless action, even for somebody as reckless as you, I would suppose," he went on, and Harry had no more doubts about the identity of the wizard whose velvety voice and sneering manner he knew far too well.

"Welcome back to the world, Snape" he managed to say, uncovering himself: and, remembering how much he owed to the man, he silenced the impulse to react by retaliating to his barbs.

They were a sight, now, staring at each other. Harry sighed and went on.

"Whatever the reason for your decision to reveal yourself is, I'll try to do my best to help you, Professor. But, first of all and above all, I must say 'thank you' for everything you did. Now I know the truth and I'm happy that I can finally tell you that I consider you the bravest man in the world… and I want to ask your forgiveness for the many times I didn't."

"Yes, Potter, I'm aware of these new sentiments of yours," Snape answered. "And that's the reason for my presence."

Harry waited, feeling a bit disconcerted; surely Snape wasn't there to merely acknowledge his praises?

"You started this mess, Potter, now you can fix it!" Snape suddenly thundered, holding the infamous biography between two disgusted fingers, then slamming it on the table with a loud thud.

Harry blushed, and at that sign Snape seemed to relax, heading to his old armchair and gesturing at the sofa on his left.

"Sit, and let's see how you can make it possible for me to come back to our world without losing my peace and my mind… not to mention my face. You owe me this, you know, after all the details you trumpeted during your last duel with Voldemort."

Harry suppressed the urge to pinch himself; now he needed to be sure that the man comfortably sat next to him and pronouncing that dreaded name with such nonchalance really was who he had claimed to be.

Then, watching the smug expression that he sported, and realising the easiness with which he was giving orders, the young wizard muttered, making sure that his words were audible to the other man, "Leave it to Snape to make this one of the most embarrassing jobs I've ever done in my entire life…"

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"Hermione you'd better be there, this time," Harry's first words had been, his body already half-through her fireplace.

She was in her flat; she had been there more often than in the past, lately.

She had just started studying for a forthcoming test after many useless efforts to concentrate, so the interruption wasn't really welcome.

"What is it now, Harry? Single-handedly captured the Giant Squid?" she asked, huffing a bit and rolling her eyes.

"May I come in? This time you can't even begin to guess, I assure you," he went on, trying to tempt her curiosity.

He was right.

She couldn't have.

Amazed, she listened to Harry's revelations about his meeting with Snape, wearing a stunned look that, luckily, her friend ascribed to the news he had carried rather than to her true reasons.

"Hermione, you must help me," he then pleaded. "You know what it's like to endure the Daily Prophet's provocations and the inventions of that horrid woman!"

He paused for some moments; then, looking at the pensive witch, he went on.

"You were right, Hermione; he was saved by a phoenix as you guessed when you found that golden feather. But things didn't happen like Skeeter wrote, by manipulating the few things that Aberforth told her in his interview… Snape gave me a fascinating tale, much more fantastic than whatever a reporter's imagination could come up with."

"Tell me," she whispered.

And he told her the enchanting truth of which, up to that moment, she had only received a few glimpses.

"Then, Hermione, he did something even more unexpected… He pulled out an envelope from the front of his robes – did I tell you that he still wears those black robes? – and said, "I believe that this is yours, Potter, and that it would be right for it to be kept with that portion of the letter which I left behind. I don't need it anymore, neither in my pocket nor in my mind. I'm returning it to you, so that you'll be able to convince everyone of my present feelings and of my need to have some peace, at last."

The boy took a deep breath, his eyes still opened in astonishment.

"And there it was, Hermione, the photo from which my mother looked at me, smiling."

Harry too was now smiling, remembering how he had suddenly perceived that Snape's gesture wasn't a rejection of Lily's memory but, primarily, a sign that the older wizard was finally at peace with himself. Later, the boy had carefully put that half photograph together with the other half that showed his father and his baby self, and completed it.

"It was like putting a real end to everything, Hermione" he concluded, a dreamy expression in his green eyes; and, for a moment, he almost forgot what the git had demanded of him, and the real reason for this visit to the cleverest among his friends.

Just for a moment, though.

"Hermione?"

Blinking away threatened tears and controlling her quickened heartbeats and strong emotion, she managed to answer:

"It's wonderful, Harry. It really is."

The young wizard gently squeezed her shoulder and urged, "I need a plan, Hermione."

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July 1999

Once more, an uproarious crowd was gathered in the bookshop and in front of it.

Many excited voices were commenting on the imminent conference whose advance advertising promised great revelations.

"Severus Snape: neither a Scoundrel nor a Saint. A debate on Rita Skeeter's last best-seller, featuring the presentation of its revised edition – now on sale - with a special contribution by the famous Harry Potter!"

The presence of the heroic young saviour was already an event in itself, since the Boy Who Had Lived Twice was usually very shy of honours.

Furthermore, rumours had been spread that something really unimaginable might happen during his speech, and nobody wanted to miss the chance to witness such an occasion, whatever it might be.

The owner of the shop, accompanied by the editors of the book that had generated all this interest, cast a Sonorus charm to request everyone's attention, and the public went silent.

"Welcome, Mr Potter. Please, let's begin," he then warmly invited the boy. And Harry began.

"All through my life, since I first I discovered that I was a wizard, I had to endure impossible threats generated by my enemies and, at the same time, survive the unwanted attention so kindly paid to me by public opinion, in every action I took."

"I still can't decide what was more difficult to bear," he grinned, "but I can say that being alive and having being allowed to return to a normal life is enough compensation for me now. And isn't that what each and everyone of us would wish?"

He paused, letting his gaze linger on the many people listening in silence.

"I know that this is true, and I know very well that, the more our lives have been in danger, the less we wish to be continuously reminded of the risks we have overcome. When Ms Skeeter started to write Severus Snape's biography, I was one of those that applauded her project. I thought that her book would be a reminder of his actions, a way to clear him from every possible accusation in the event that he might still be alive somewhere, making everyone aware of how he had redeemed his faults, willingly sacrificing his life… Today I'm here to confirm that he did indeed do everything the book says, and to reveal that what we knew up to now wasn't the whole story."

After a dramatic pause, he spoke again, raising his tone in a triumphal announcement.

"Severus Snape is alive, and therefore, like every human being still living, not yet ready to be canonised!"

After a few seconds of astonishment, the room and the street exploded in enthusiastic applause.

"However, he will not be present today, as some rumours seemed to suggest," Harry Potter went on. "I can say that, even though I consider him the bravest man that I have ever known, he would 'fear' the embrace of this grateful multitude, right at this moment!"

Sweating, the young hero felt that it was time to end his speech, making his final plea.

"But he let me know that he will return, sooner or later, if you'll respect his longing for peace and his desire to be left alone. Until then, let's enjoy his tale, updated in this ultimate version!" he concluded, blushing and pointing at the piles of books on his left.

The covers of the volumes displayed the same weird duo of the first edition, but now the expression shown by the wizard seemed, if not friendly, a bit more relaxed.

Beaming with greedy expectation, Rita Skeeter – now definitely consecrated as "the Author of the Moment" - was standing proudly near her works, ready to sign them, and displaying her most mischievous attire and the look of a vulture ready to feast.

From the corner of the shop, hidden behind an old bookshelf, a dark figure nodded in approval before Disapparating.

"Very well, Potter, and more articulate than usual, at least!"

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She hadn't trusted herself to go visiting him anymore, after Harry's revelations. Nor had she wished to assist at the press conference that her friend had had to organize and endure.

Nevertheless, the hope to see Severus soon, without deliberately searching for him, had accompanied her days up to that moment.

So, she wasn't completely surprised to see him Apparate into the middle of the small living room of her flat in Dublin, at the end of the day in which Harry had revealed to the masses the truth about Severus' survival.

Yet, seeing him in front of her, imposing in his black attire and wearing the frock coat that he had no longer been using during the period of their meetings, her heart was beating furiously.

"You're back," she said, rising from her seat and closing the distance between them.

"And you are free from your promises, Miss Granger," he said, but the solemnity of his words wasn't reflected in his tone, nor in his soft look at her.

Without averting her gaze from him, a shining smile in her eyes, she continued, "The one I made to you is only the latest of the commitments from which I'm free, you know".

"I know. I understood, though belatedly, that you had solved your problems in a very different way than I had supposed. It was a stunning realization, I assure you, but since that moment, I knew that from my side, too, there was something to resolve and to change."

"And you did it… also managing a little revenge along the way, it seems," she teased.

"Ah, but I knew that Potter would put his troubles in capable hands, as he always did… though I must admit that, this time, I had strongly hoped that he would do so."

"How Slytherin…" she observed, smiling.

"I don't think so, Hermione. It took to me quite a while to realise, so I'm not such a great symbol of my House's intuition and cunning, I'd say" he replied, moving a few steps nearer to the woman. "And I'm not just speaking of understanding words…"

"Neither of us was very good with words, perhaps…" she commented, remotely realizing the oddity of that statement when applied to a girl known for her long explanations and quotes, and to a man that used his bewitching voice as one of his most effective weapons.

"Words aren't always the best way to explain, Hermione," he whispered, and she felt how much nearer he was to her, now.

And then they were nearer and nearer, until the last shadow of trepidation quickly dissipated in the warmest of kisses.

Almost breathless, Hermione distanced herself a bit, searching for his gaze.

She needed to know.

"You never lie, Severus… so, why did you lie to my question about Lily?"

"I didn't. I'll always love those who I loved. But words have many different meanings, you know… as different as the moments when we say them" he answered, still holding her by her waist.

Fondly, Hermione cupped his cheeks in her hands, feeling his arms tightening around her.

"Yes, yes, I see," she went on softly.

Then, since her knees were slightly wobbling, she led him to the nearest seat.

"So…" she resumed talking when she felt able to do so, "We are both free from promises, at last."

"And are you certain you know what you'll do with your freedom, Hermione?" he asked, challenging her with an ironical tone that successfully hid what he was actually feeling and that caught her by surprise.

Disconcerted, Hermione looked at him with widened eyes, without understanding.

Until she suddenly knew.

"Yes, Severus, I think I am. Just like I'm sure – and no promises are needed to feel it – that this time I won't fail. I'm certain that, whatever would be the right word for it, this" she emphasized pointing to his chest and to herself "is something that will last forever."

For a moment he felt all the incredulity that a lifetime of suffered desertions had accustomed him to feel. And it seemed almost impossible to trust a statement like that, no matter how he wished it to be true.

But, then, a shorter and more recent time, a time in which he had experienced a new kind of care, and of love, came to his mind through the faithful gaze of the woman in front of him.

So he nodded smiling, and ...

"Forever," he repeated, throwing away every thought of foolishness and savoring the word in all its exclusive, new, different meaning, before kissing her again, and again, and again.

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Author's Notes:

As for everyone who sends tales into the open to be shared... reviews are most welcome!

The section breaks are borrowed, as in my previous stories, from: www. whitehound. co. uk/Fanfic/ffn_how-to. htm