You disappear into a moonlit night, and I imagine I might have seen you go if only I'd been paying attention.
The ghost of him lingers.
In the lab that houses their work. In the office where they'd shout at one another until the tendrils of an idea would finally find form. In the privacy of their chambers where she cries at night for the loss of something she fears might never have been hers, after all.
It's not as if they didn't search for him.
Like Harry said. You can't take a man, a wizard, from villain to hero and then pretend not to notice when he vanishes.
It didn't happen precisely like that, she thinks, but it's close enough.
It just took longer, that's all.
And the devil is in the details.
The lab is dark. The fire beneath the cauldron throws shadows against the walls, but it's the potion inside that should be glowing.
"Maybe this time," she mutters as she delivers the final clockwise stir.
He brushes a strand of hair from his eyes.
Hermione risks a glance at him as she completes the final turn. His skin is grey again, and the sigh he tries to hide tells the tale of their failure more soundly than any words.
"We can try again tomorrow." The words sound hollow even to her own ears.
He says nothing, just gazes into the belly of the cauldron. The potion is nearly as black as the metal surrounding it. Black instead of the shimmering silver that would mean success at last. As black as his eyes and nearly as bleak.
"Go on home, Severus," Hermione says. "I'll clear up here and join you soon."
She can't reach him across the bench. Before she can circle around it—before she can take hold of his hand or brush his lips with hers in promise of the night's gifts, he has turned to go.
"I'll see you soon," she whispers.
But the door has already closed behind him, and he's gone.
I watch the moon set through our bedroom window. You're out there, somewhere in the dark. Again.
The moment he first begins to slip away is lost to the bustle of their lab by day and the heat of his lips on her skin in the night.
He is a master of distraction, and it's only later, wrapped in the dark with the lingering scent of him pressed against her skin that she remembers.
She fails to appreciate the irony.
Ron promises they'll find him. Despite the tension or perhaps because of it, he can't resist teasing. Severus, he says, wouldn't allow the night to take him when psychopath and snake each failed.
He'd never tolerate the indignity.
She grants him a small smile, indulgent. But the crimson of his robes burns her eyes, and she wants only to be left alone with her memories.
She tumbles like a leaf tossed about by an indifferent wind.
At home it's the worst. Every corner holds a piece of him, and she's torn between the desire to preserve the relics she stumbles across or to banish them.
The lab is scarcely better, but at least there she can pretend to focus on their research.
"When he comes home, he'll hardly be pleased if I've abandoned our work," she explains to anyone who dares ask. She pretends not to notice when they don't meet her eyes and acts as if she hasn't heard when they refer to Severus in the past tense.
As if he were dead.
Ridiculous, she thinks. If he were dead, she would certainly have noticed; her heart crushed to dust, fear and uncertainty no longer piercing her with their ragged edges.
He's not dead, only lost.
It has occurred to her that this might be one of his most aggravating habits. It must, she decides, be an affliction of one lacking sufficient practice being found. And of course, last time it had been she who found him when no one else could.
Serves her right for leaving such important work to the Aurors.
The Floo flares green, and Hermione braces herself.
"We're sorry Mrs Snape," says the apprentice Auror who accompanies Ron today. "It's as if he disappeared into thin air."
"Thin air?" she echoes. "How novel." She holds the Auror's gaze just long enough for the man to blush.
"You're certain there isn't anyone who would wish to do him harm?"
Hermione shoots an irritable glance at Ron, but he's examining the floor.
"Apart from Death Eaters who escaped prosecution, war survivors who have conveniently forgotten he was a spy, and former students?" she asks. "No. Nobody." She glares at the Auror until he looks away.
"Hermione," Ron interjects. "It's time to talk about the research."
He's not inspecting the floor anymore. No more the uncertain boy of old, Ron's serious look warrants attention. She could evade him again, but he wants to find Severus as much as she does. Or nearly, if only so he and Harry can stop taking turns sleeping on her couch.
"Send him back to the Ministry and call Harry," she says, gesturing towards the nervous Auror, and Ron nods without another word.
I can't watch the sun rise without you. Not when all I do is wonder why even the thin winter light should be allowed to embrace you when I cannot.
The subject of their research is deceptively simple.
Esoteric enough to glaze the eyes of the uninitiated, but suitably profound to merit the nearly invisible security that St Mungo's has installed around their lab. She won't let herself pause to wonder that not one of them imagined danger to themselves, only to the work itself. Not even Severus, whose paranoia rivals that of Mad Eye Moody most days.
The catalyst for their work permeates the air between them. Witches and wizards huddled in whitewashed rooms not far from the lab are depending on them to succeed. Friends and rivals alike who have been silenced by a spell no one recognises and even the most skilled Healers have been unable to reverse. Stripped of memory, bereft of history, emotion, and self, they are hollowed out shells of who they once were.
Targeted by an assailant the Aurors have failed to identify, war survivors from both sides have fallen into a state of limbo—neither dead nor alive. The common links between them, their utter emptiness and a runic mark on each one's brow that had been lit from within just briefly the first time a Healer attempted magic to heal them.
The Aurors have been forbidden to discuss the case with anyone outside the department lest they trigger a panic. Their research grant requires no small degree of secrecy as well. But if their research has placed Severus at risk, then her priority is clear.
Memory networks, she explains to the boys. (They'll always be boys to her, no matter how red their robes or how many younger wizards in similar garb call them 'sir.')
She and Severus, she continues—her quill flying across the parchment—are seeking ways to repair broken memory networks. Hoping to find the elusive combination of potions and charms that will uncover the links between them, coaxing out the dropped threads, and untangling the knotted ones. They're hoping, she explains, to find a magical way to repair fractured connections between memory and the emotions that house it.
And if she and Severus hold their own hopes for the brew, nobody else need know.
Harry looks thoughtful. He's had more experience than most with memories—especially other people's.
"Lots of security," Ron says, eying the runes that frame the door and windows.
She's thinking how foolish they've been to put so much magical power towards securing the room and not a second thought to protecting themselves—when Harry's voice breaks the silence.
"Who did you plan to use as your first test patient, Hermione?" He looks at her as if he already knows.
She doesn't really need to answer, which is fortunate. The heart in her throat is pounding too furiously for her to say a word.
"In all the hours of Auror interviews over the last month, it never occurred to you to mention his memory hadn't been successfully restored?"
Harry is livid. She hasn't seen him this angry since the last time they argued about Dumbledore.
"Severus didn't want anybody to know," she tells him. "Anyway, it was nobody's business." She doesn't mention how many months it took him to tell her about the lost moments and missing connections that must have made him doubt his sanity. "And it's not really accurate to say his memory wasn't successfully restored. It just didn't work the way it had… before."
Before the night he'd spilled his soul alongside his lifeblood on a dirty wooden floor.
Before he'd taken back those memories—one by one—reluctance written in the stiff line of his jaw and in the hardened furrow between his brows.
She'd encouraged him.
So naïve; so hopeful. Severus would have said hopeful because of her naïveté. But he'd just devoured her with hungry eyes as her fingertips traced the contours of his hands.
"You can't discard the past if you want to have a future," she'd told him, wanting only for him to have a future—for them to share one together.
He'd done it, looking for all the world like a man sentenced to a meal of Flobberworms and Bubotuber pus. Later, nobody would think it odd when he'd sought funding to study memory. And much later, when the first patient had arrived at St Mungo's as similar to a victim of a Dementor attack as is possible in a world without Dementors, she and Severus had been the natural choice to research a cure.
St Mungo's had been all too happy to continue to sponsor them, and nobody had given any of it a second thought. Until now.
"So are we looking for someone who wants to make sure Snape doesn't remember something he's forgotten?" Ron muses. "Or did he wander off—"
"He's not incompetent!" Hermione fumes. And he wouldn't leave her, especially not like this, she adds silently. Not slipping away like a ghost, invisible in the moonlight.
"Had you noticed anything different about—"
"I've been through this a hundred times with the other Aurors," she shouts.
But her cheeks burn, and she knows she can't hide anymore. Not from them. Harry and Ron have known her too long to ignore the telltale signs of deception.
Even—or perhaps especially—self-deception.
Ron rests his hand on hers as hot tears roll down her cheeks. She wonders absently when, over the last ten years, he has learned to wait.
"He was having nightmares," she says at last, staring at Ron's hand and marvelling at how different it is from Severus's. "He wouldn't talk about them but it was obvious that they were getting worse. Sometimes I'd wake in the middle of the night and he'd be up."
She remembers the first time she'd woken to find him gone. For a moment, she'd panicked at the empty space beside her in bed, but a thread of light beneath the door had led her to where he'd sat in the flickering firelight. His posture that night—head bent over a book he wasn't reading—had reminded her of his stay in hospital after the war. Her presence then had been unwelcome, too, at least at first.
That night, she'd paused, chilled, at the threshold. Though he'd been only a whisper away, she hadn't felt so removed from him since the twilight time after they'd breached their shared history but before she'd worn him down and convinced him to court her—those awful months when she had despaired of him viewing her as anything more than a barely tolerable companion during the endless days of his recuperation.
"Usually he'd be fine again in the morning," she continues, trying to shake off the memory just as Severus had done the shadows stalking him in the night. "He always brushed off my concern, and I let him." Her voice drops to a whisper. "Nobody else knew. About the nightmares, or about the trouble with his memory."
"Why do you think he was so secretive?" Harry asks. "It's not as if the entire wizarding world didn't already know he'd poured them out for me to see."
Hermione shakes her head. Even seven years married, there are aspects of her husband she doesn't entirely understand. It's as if each time she thinks she has his measure, another layer unfurls, leaving her enthralled all over again—and sometimes just a tiny bit afraid of what is newly revealed.
"I don't know," she says. She can't voice the thought hanging in the air. Can't voice the awful knowledge that she has no idea whether to fear for Severus, or to keen from the agony of his leaving.
So she does both.
The midday sun is a cruel parody. It blinds me, more even than the darkness I carry around inside. I tell them that you would never leave me, could never…
I just don't know whether I believe my own words more in the daylight or the dark.
The Pensieve stands where the cauldron always had, on the long wooden workbench scarred with the sorts of burns overflowing potions leave when they've gone rogue.
She refuses to do this anywhere but here.
Not in their home where she can still find him in the nubby texture of his nightshirt or the well-worn spines of his books, or at the Ministry where too many layers of history lay brittle between Severus and truth.
No, it must be the lab. It's where she and Severus began this journey, and it's fitting that here should be where they review it.
The vials sit in a row, a silvery mist shimmering in each one. Until today, she hadn't given nearly enough thought to the power contained in each of those slender silver strands. Especially not one of her own.
"The solution might be hidden inside you and you don't even realise," Harry had said. "You'd be amazed how much you can learn just by watching."
She doesn't doubt it.
She hadn't expected the idea to be quite so terrifying.
It's not until she drops into the first scene, Ron and Harry on either side of her, that she realises what she longs for most is the same as what she fears.
To have the illusion of him within reach without the ability to touch is pure torture. No less the fact that he has no awareness of her watching him.
He'd never be so insensate to her pain were he actually here.
But he's not. He is, in this particular memory, two years younger with a great deal less silver in his hair, his pallor far better than the night he disappeared. And in the moment in question, he's irritated.
They are meeting with one of the bureaucrats overseeing their research. Hermione knows how much Severus hates this administrative layer, not least because the Ministry hack assigned to oversee them seems to take special pleasure in generating unnecessary paperwork. Today, frustration has escalated far beyond the aggravation of wasted time and parchment.
They have been stonewalled in their request for Graymould, their appeals for the powerful and difficult to obtain ingredient delayed and ultimately denied. Finally, a meeting is scheduled. But instead of finding their liaison from St Mungo's waiting for them, a witch with whom they have a good working relationship, they find the Ministry official Severus had taken to calling 'the simpering fool'.
"Mr Black," Severus says. His eyes flash, and Hermione wonders, watching now, as she'd wondered at the time, whether the mid-level bureaucrat has enough native intelligence or even self-preservation to be afraid of her husband.
"While your diligence in this matter is… admirable," Severus continues, "you are, sadly, not responsible for decision-making regarding the scope and experimental direction of our research. Nor do we need to gain your approval for the potions ingredients we select."
"Ah, but that's where you are mistaken," the other wizard replies. He produces a parchment stamped with scarlet seals and thrusts it into Severus's hands.
Hermione's stomach clenches at his sneer.
"I have indeed been given the authority to supervise the direction of your work and most particularly your ingredient choices. We wouldn't want any… hmm.. unfortunate influences to slip into the protocol unnoticed, would we? Especially considering the state of the patients you hope to treat."
"You would certainly know about unfortunate influences, wouldn't you, Black?"
The other man turns beet red but says nothing.
Hermione watches her memory-self lean forward to examine the parchment, heat flooding her cheeks. There had been no warning, she remembers. No clue that the Ministry would interfere with a research protocol contracted only peripherally through their offices.
"This is ridiculous," her memory-self is saying. "Healer Corbin at St Mungo's is our contact, and she is quite pleased with our progress as well as our selection of ingredients."
"Yes, well, Healer Corbin may be satisfied. It remains to be seen whether we are in agreement." Black shoots Severus an icy glance. "And frankly, I question St Mungo's judgment in funding such—" He pauses to look Hermione up and down. "—unsuitable researchers."
Black presses his lips together as if to keep himself from saying more, but Hermione doesn't need to be a Legilimens to see the resentment and malice in his eyes. For a moment, she can see the resemblance to his cousin Bellatrix and a wave of nausea nearly knocks her over.
Watching now with the distance the Penseive provides, she can see what it takes out of Severus to control himself, especially with a man who has cosied up to witches and wizards who should, he'd told her, be occupying a row of cells in Azkaban.
Black gathers his papers and turns to leave, slamming the door behind him. Only Hermione notices that Severus's hand, the one still holding the parchment with the bloody seal, is shaking.
The memory fades, and Harry makes a note. Hermione wonders if they've added a suspect to their roster. But the scene changes, and she's distracted again.
It's their bedroom, the prior spring, when the nightmares were at their peak, and Severus had given her only the barest of clues as to what was roiling inside him. But that night he'd been relaxed, and they had retreated to the sanctuary of their room—their bed—early.
She wants to cry when she sees him stroking her hair, his lips brushing against her sweat dampened skin. She wants to push her memory-self aside and crawl under the covers with him instead, curling into the echo of his scent, his touch, and the whisper of his breath against her ear, carrying promises she believes as surely as she trusts her own magic he has every intention of keeping.
They may be here to view the conversation that will begin in a moment with whispered words in the dark, to mine it for clues.
But Hermione has found a categorical truth captured in this suspended moment in time. This moment of lush silence right before they begin to speak.
Severus did not leave her of his own volition.
She is certain of it.