I find it wasteful loading chapter by chapter, since I've already finished the story. Hope that's okay.
My deepest gratitude to my beta Susanna for helping me think things through and ergo making this a far better piece of work than it would have other wise been. Any problems you have with the text should be considered my fault and not hers, since I can be a stubborn dumkopf when the mood strikes me.
I don't like warnings and author's notes are after the story, not before. I will tell you that there are depressing, death-related themes, blood and blade related but it is primarily a love story. Rated R, I suppose.
Once you're done reading it, comments and criticism are gratefully accepted.
= = =
On Mondays she usually added aster fern to the potion for his hair and extracted hibiscus juice for the next batch. The whole potion took almost a week to make, but it occupied her time and besides, it had become a necessary obsession to keep his lanky strands shining clean and silky. Despite her best efforts his skin produced so much oil that it was usually only a day before hair, scalp and cheeks were as greasy as ever, regardless of the shampooing and hot water treatments. It didn't stop her from trying, of course. Nothing ever stopped her from trying. This Monday would be no different.
This Monday when she strained the liquid and put it in a steel cauldron to simmer, her features appeared so haggard in the clear brown surface that the shock forced her to attempt a smile.
"Good morning Professor," she enunciated, "How are we feeling today?"
The sound of her voice echoed too loudly so she looked away. Houndsfoot and henna and hips-of-the-dark stared back in endlessly variegated bottles, every shape, size and colour chosen to aid in sorting the ingredients by name and use. Ragwort and rapeseed, riptide and ropeweed. She knew almost all the contents of these shelves by heart; their shape and texture in the dried and fresh forms, their myriad uses and uncommon scents. The few herbs that still mystified her were a guilty hope that she had held for the near future. She had known once that he would return to her, he would lift out the bottles and tell her about their properties. It had been a case of when, not if.
She caught the scent of burning asters and cursed. The potion had overheated. She quickly turned the flame down and breathed through her nose, counting, one, two, three, four, till ten when the fumes dissipated and she could see her own face reflected again.
There were crowfeet around her eyes and lines on her forehead. Her lips were pinched so that they would not tremble. Ten, eleven, twelve through thirty-eight and by the time she was considering the slight puffiness of her skin, the smell was gone.
She leaned over the cauldron and breathed in, her nostrils quivering, trying to see if she needed to start shredding plants again. No, it seemed to be all right. Good thing too. She was nervous enough today.
The hibiscus decoction was almost ready too. It required the upper solution to be decanted, concentrated through boiling and then decanted again. Decanting was a delicate operation and she breathed hard while performing it, biting lightly into her inner cheek.
Forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven through fifty. She poured the last possible drop from the second cauldron and noted with satisfaction that not a shred of twisted leaf polluted it. It was easy now. All she had to do now was wait.
Professor Hermione Granger, youngest ever Potions Mistress of Hogwarts watched the flame under her second-best brass cauldron, and swore as it flickered. Re-lit it with a muttered spell and settled back to watch with greater care.
She didn't invoke any of Merlin's parts when she cursed, simply because she never had; a fact that always afforded him great amusement. Besides, her true hopes rested in Nimue, who surpassed her master and locked him in a tree that only she could open.
When he woke up she would tell him this and watch his smile. When he woke up, not if.
As she waited for the second decanting, her eyes misted once, but that could have been a reaction to the potion. She had never been overly fond of the earthy spices, though he liked their scent, so when she made the cleansing potion for his use, she didn't add aspasia to sweeten the hibiscus and fern.
Six thousand to six thousand one hundred counts. She poured the potion into a vial and secured it to her belt, after which she cleaned the workspace, scrubbed the cauldron and then stood till three thousand more counts had passed, waiting for it to dry.
The cauldron was dry. The floor was clean. She was wondering whether she could sort the contents of the shelves and realized what she was doing. Bit her lip.
She entered her rooms, making straight for the little antechamber where he slept. Even though she knew what to expect, sometimes she thought that made it a little worse because there was always that initial moment of desperate, brain-buzzing hope when she thought maybe, just maybe his coma had segued into natural sleep. Maybe. Just maybe.
A thin smile twisted her lips as she entered his room. No, no such luck.
"Good morning, Professor. Severus." My darling.
As always she supplied the amused response in her mind. Good morning, Professor Granger.
She'd never actually heard him use those words.
= = =
She was prepared to tease him ever so slightly, only slightly, because he had seemed so fragile, last night, so intense and worried, but surely she was allowed some small comment on how late he'd slept in and how lucky he was that they'd attempted this for the first time during Hogwart's mid-term break. She was prepared to subtly reinforce the idea that he'd better get used to her being in his bed, she was prepared for scowls and she was hoping for conciliatory snogs. She thought at first that he was playing a trick on her, even though some part of her brain realized that no trick would leave anyone this ice-cold and unresponsive, so limp and comatose that his or her breath would barely mist a mirror. If she hadn't automatically checked he was breathing, she might have given in to her impulse to incinerate the rooms or bury them both in a flood of ice, which would have relieved her feelings but done nothing else constructive.
Instead she called the headmaster down. She thought Se – her Professor would have preferred her to do that.
Dumbledore's eyes were very, very opaque as they flickered from her to the black and white figure on the bed. Her hands tightened, willing his attention back to her.
"It's an enchanted sleep, Hermione," Dumbledore said softly. "Like Arthur and his knights, like Merlin in his tree."
"How do we wake him up?"
Dumbledore didn't look at her when he answered, "We can't."
She turned and made him meet her eyes so she could give him the full benefit of the glare she'd perfected over a year of working with Snape; after which she bent down and touched her Professor's hand gently. He didn't wake, didn't even stir as she rubbed her thumb gently over the knuckles, tracing and retracing the fine venation that covered his hands. Such thin, delicate, gentle hands...
"Hermione," Dumbledore said.
"It's Dr. Granger now." She hadn't meant to say that, but was perversely glad that she had. "Why won't he wake up?"
"Dr. Granger," said Dumbledore very gently, "what do you know about Merlin's curse?"
She tried not to listen to him. She already knew. By her second year in university she had known enough about Merlin to never want to invoke his name. The great wizard had broken all the greatest taboos of wizarding, including the one about meddling with Muggles; though to his credit there hadn't been any laws in those days. In fact, one could say the laws had only been created in order to ensure no other wizard or witch would behave the same way.
Especially with their students. Which was why Hogwarts and the other schools for wizardry had been created. To protect the children.
"I'm sorry," Dumbledore said, after a while. "I wish there had been some easier way to tell you."
She didn't bother looking at him, just fixed her attention on smoothing the strands of hair back from Severus' forehead. "You're never sorry, headmaster," she said steadily.
"I'm sorry," he repeated after an appropriate pause. The words blended into the steady rhythm she was perfecting, sweeping her fingertips over Severus' skin, touching his cheekbones, the pulse points of his wrist and neck, learning to find the faint beat where life still lingered. Dormant, not extinguished.
The headmaster touched her shoulder very lightly. "Hermione - "
She shrugged him off and knelt beside the bed, unclenching her fists before reaching out for him. "Professor," she tried to make her voice gentle, "My - Professor, please, you have to get up now."
"Hermione," the pressure of Albus Dumbledore's ancient fingers was insistent on her shoulders, giving a hint of the power that he usually cloaked. "I need you to tell me something."
She tried to ignore him. "Professor?" her voice was very low. "Please? Wake up?"
"Child." Dumbledore turned her to him with seemingly no effort at all, and the sight of his trembling, fearful expression made no sense to her. "Please, tell me the truth. What was - did he?"
She shook her head in wonder. "How can you ask?"
"Child, you must tell me."
"You of all people should know the answer to that."
She flinched for a moment, then stood ramrod straight as he searched her eyes for what seemed like a few years. At the end he relaxed infinitesimally. Took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
"I had to be certain," he said, replacing his glasses, while she restrained the urge to spit in his face. Turned away, rubbing her arms.
Did he? Did he what? Can't you even say it? No he didn't. If anyone did, I did, she wanted to yell loudly, I chased him, I seduced him, I brought him down and... and I want him back!
I want him back now. Oh please no, don't take him, not now, not when we've just... I've just …
Dumbledore was speaking. "You have to understand that this is... a difficult situation. The wards of Hogwarts were designed to protect its children. They always have, always will. No child can come to harm in Hogwarts without the offender - suffering the consequences of what he has done. Merlin's breath - " he swore suddenly.
"I'm not a child," she whispered, filling in the blanks. "I'm 22 years old even if you don't count the years the time-turner added." All eight of them, crammed into four normal years.
She'd been diagnosed with Time-Turner exhaustion and exiled to Hogwarts for supervision. Severus had challenged her, bullied her back to health, mocking her with being unable to complete her doctoral thesis in ordinary time. She'd mocked back, reminding him that she wasn't the only one in the room.
Sometimes she thought that was when she first fell for him, when he'd looked at her and said, "True. Should I be flattered that you wish to follow my example?"
"You were, are his student." Dumbledore replied. "And Severus is your mentor."
"He was helping me with my thesis, yes, but he couldn't have failed me even if he wanted to! We were partners!"
(Should I be flattered that you wish to follow my example?)
She found herself short of breath, her throat tight as if she had been screaming. But she hadn't, surely, she wasn't even crying, just short of breath. Swallowing something that tasted suspiciously of blood and iron, hearing her voice on endless repeat saying, "We were partners. There wasn't anything wrong between us. He did nothing wrong. We did nothing wrong."
She couldn't hear Dumbledore's answer over the pounding of her ears. "The library," she said, "The answer will be in the library."
She didn't take Dumbledore's offered hand, but stood up on her own. "I'm going to the library," she rapped out, "I'm going now."
He nodded, though not quickly enough to suit her, and let her precede him out the door. Neither of them looked back at the Potions Master, but once the door shut behind them, Hermione leaned against the wall a minute, trying to get her breath back. Dumbledore watched over her gravely until she managed to make herself move to the library.
He spoke quietly with Madam Pince as Hermione moved through the Restricted Section like a vengeful cyclone, discarding and picking up books, reading excerpts and throwing them away again, assimilating information with one part of her brain, the other praying she would soon find method in her madness. At that moment she needed only to absorb, not to think and she was grateful Dumbledore didn't tell her what she already half-suspected, that the charm was built into the stones of Hogwarts and short of destroying the place, there was nothing to be done. He let her proceed at her own pace and devour as much of the library as she could before collapsing in sheer nervous exhaustion.
It took her a little less than a week.
In that one week she didn't stop to eat or drink more than a glass of the pumpkin juice Madam Pince forced on her at regular intervals. She didn't stop to bathe and the only care her hair received was when she ran her fingers through it in frustration, yanking at the knots for the relief that pain would bring. She didn't go back to her rooms, she couldn't contemplate stepping into his, and when Madam Pomfrey and Madam Hooch exchanged low, kind whispers about Severus' unchanged condition near the study carrels where she sat with her books, she got up and walked away.
At the end of the week, Minerva McGonagall came and took her gently by the hand. She followed, unresisting after a full Body Bind and Mobilicorpus had been placed on her, and the stacks of books she'd enchanted fluttered behind, trailing like a great flock of ill-matched birds, each of which made a courtesy stop at the library counter for Madam Pince to stamp.
When Hermione realized where she was being taken to, she nearly managed to break her own arms resisting the Body Bind, but in the end had to settle for wide-eyed hatred.
The dungeon rooms, however, were mercifully bare of living corpses.
Professor McGonagall surveyed her calmly and said, "There's a hot bath run for you, Granger, and the house elves have prepared your living quarters. I thought these rooms would be handier for classes."
She stared back, not knowing what she would have said, even had she been able.
It's Dr. Granger now
"I advise a long soak and then some food, Granger," said McGonagall crisply, "then to bed and tomorrow..." she snapped her fingers and released the binds. Hermione nearly fell to her knees, but staggered upright.
"..." her mouth was dry, her hands trembling. "...you..."
"Library privileges come with a price, Granger." McGonagall said quietly. "I should say, Professor Granger." She let that sink in before moving out. "You need to start putting things in order, my dear. Lesson plans and what not. Don't forget, school starts in three days time and the Potions Room is still an unholy mess."
"Wait!" They couldn't. They wouldn't be so cruel. "Professor McGonagall, wait!"
But McGonagall had already left.
In hindsight, when Hermione thought about it, the short sharp treatment had probably been the best. Bereft as she was of anything but angry confusion she had forgotten the pain long enough to stumble into the bath and once there, the water had been so refreshing and warm, so utterly heavenly on her starved, itchy skin -
She wondered who had alerted the house-elves. She had vague memories of McGonagall drying and comforting her before putting her to bed, telling her remorsefully that she should not have been left alone, poor tired dear, no wonder she fell asleep in her bath.
Not quite Gryffindor behaviour, Granger, she thought she heard someone say, wryly amused, and though it was probably a warped memory of something McGonagall had said, the voice had seemed so very familiar at the time. So very dear.
When she woke up that night, she had forgotten for a moment and rolling over into something soft she clutched it to her in smiling greeting. The next moment she stiffened, wondering for a brief fear-filled moment if the - thing - she was clutching was, could be
Soft as feathers and a rounded shape. She stifled a nervous laugh. Certainly not her Professor.
Hermione stared into the dark for a few minutes, absently stroking the bolster before getting up and lighting her wand.
The rooms were hers now, full of her things. Even the walls had been painted. For some reason that made them even stranger to her.
It was morning when she found his books were all where they should be and that relief was what allowed her to cry. Two days later she met Dumbledore and McGonagall with a satisfactory lesson plan and list of supplies. And a request. No. A bargain.
Severus was moved back into her quarters that very same day. At the first sight of him, Potions Mistress Hermione Granger nearly begged them to take him away again. At second sight, a moment later, she unclenched her teeth and helped Hagrid lay him gently on the bed she'd made up for him.
A separate bed in a separate chamber of course, to observe the proprieties. In case anyone accused her Professor of having trained another to follow in his darker footsteps.
I presume you're worried about being branded a necrophiliac. I wouldn't worry.
No. They think you're mad anyway.
She stifled a nervous giggle.
And you? What do you think?
I think... very softly,
To think you love me? Yes, you must be mad. Or as near insanity as makes no difference, Professor Granger.
The words rolled over her tongue like dark chocolate.
Mm. I like the sound of that.
Velvet laugh. Professor Granger...
His voice in her head seemed as pleasant a way to go insane as any.
= = =
The voice in her head echoed softly. Hermione stifled a nervous laugh, and let her hands touch his hair, let the one-sided caress soothe her body just as her imagination supplied both halves of their conversation. The mind had unusual ways of cushioning the body from shock, really.
Ah, you've finally decided I'm a figment of your imagination, then
Hermione's fingers stilled. After a moment, she started stroking again.
If I had, would I bother answering?
The chuckle she heard came straight from her heart, from the memory of his face transformed as he finished reading the letter of acceptance - you've done it, Granger! Beautiful, beautiful man, but this hair... oh. Long, limp and oily. The strands had been sweet smelling and damp to her fingers, sliding through as she clutched his head to her breast; his hair had fallen around his face, shrouding it in a silk curtain that she'd parted again and again so she could memorize his touch. Hermione shuddered and stroked the hairs from his expressionless face. Thank - goodness his eyes were closed.
On Mondays she made the potion for his hair, but on Tuesdays, however, it was always unclean again. She couldn't imagine why.
But it kept her hoping and kept her touching him.
On Mondays she always washed his hair.
"Bath time," she said quietly, placing her kit on the nightstand near his head. Her hands went to the front of her robes, unbuttoning slowly, carefully. When they were all undone, she stood there a while, the garment hanging freely off her shoulders, watching and wondering if that was a trace of emotion distorting his blank features.
No. No, of course it was only her imagination.
She always watched him for as long as she could bear it, memorizing his features, wondering idly if today would be the day. The day the spell broke.
Fierceness seized her and she reached out to caress his cheek. Ran a finger down the bone and into the hollow of his throat, seeking a pulse, faint but there. She leaned down and kissed him gently, on the carotid, on his chin, gently on his lips, inhaling the soft mustiness that told her it was Monday. Lastly, always last, she smoothed her fingers over his hair.
Then she gestured, leviosa, lifting him slightly; motioned deshabilus to remove his clothes. Walked him into the bath and lowered him gently into the water, noting that at least the preservation spell had saved him from muscular deterioration. As the warm, scented water lapped against his skin she reached down and used her hands to bathe him, pour water over his chest, lave his shoulders and gently touch his neck. Thanks to the partial bind she kept on him, he didn't loll back frighteningly and she could almost believe it was a game they were playing, though she wondered whimsically if he would have ever wanted to play, had they been given time. Sex had been frightful to him, a matter of silent, nervous touches and raw need. He'd been vulnerability personified when he realized he had no idea of the limits of consensual hurt.
The lump still caught in her throat when she remembered him whispering, "Please... you..." trying to relinquish control, telling her with the butterfly dance of his fingers down her back that he didn't know how to do this without hurting either of them. She thought she had known. Apparently she had been wrong.
She shivered, thinking of conjugation and how 'please you' could mean so many things depending on the spaces between words, and whether they were filled with anything. She'd taken him in her arms and guided and been shattered by the emotions coursing through him. Not that the sensations had been bad, just… more intense than she'd been used to. Before, for her, sex had always been about desire and fulfilling needs, about filling the empty corners when work got too much and there had to be a release. For him - with him - it had also been about need and release. Just. More important.
She should have paid more attention to the spaces between words. She could have used them to say 'I love you'.
Shaking slightly, Hermione put thoughts of the past aside and concentrated on the present.
Today was Monday. And she had a job to do.
She discarded her robes, leaving only the shirt and shorts. A few furtive times she had gotten into the tub with him, both of them naked just so she could feel him leaning against her. Today, however, she wanted to study him, watch every single detail of the bath just in case, just in case...
When she reached out for a dipper of warm water and poured it over his head she almost expected him to lean back and savour it, was unnerved when he didn't. Sixty such Mondays before she understood what that meant. She still hoped. Still - loved.
It made a difference. It helped her make her decision.
Stopping the process for a second, Hermione leaned forward on her low stool, letting her head fall against Severus' naked wet chest. Pressed her cheek into the flesh, willing warmth back into it, willing herself to hear the sound of blood circulation being restored to its full measure.
When she leaned back, her cheek was wet with tears. Not bath water, tears. She wiped them away and smiled resolutely.
So. There was still work to be done.
She poured more water over his hair, smoothing the wet strands out of his face, reaching back for the potion, pouring some into her palm and working up lather. She reached forward and began the process of tending his hair.
Sixty Mondays worth of caring for a comatose man, one who, almost the entire teaching staff surmised, would never wake from his sleep. Perhaps that counted for necrophilia, or at best, star-crossed love. She wondered idly what the Daily Prophet would make of their story, and decided she really didn't want to know. If she was lucky, then after today she'd never have to worry about them finding out.
She'd never wanted to live out a legend, just to be a success story like her parents before her. And when it'd turned out that magic was her career option, she'd only ever wanted to be good at it. No, excellent.
You don't always get what you think you deserve, Miss Granger, the memory of his voice echoed, adding after a moment, too low almost to hear, be thankful for that.
She raised her hands to his head, stroking gently, gathering the rising foam. Crowned with a cap of soapy bubbles he should have looked adorable. Instead he was frightening, pale and dark, like some lonely object d'art brutalized for a toy. Hermione closed her eyes and brought them together, forehead-to-forehead, feeling some of the soap transfer to her face. It felt a little like a kiss. It was a reminder of how pathetic she'd become.
Schooling her face, Hermione finished giving him a bath. When she dried him off, her hands were firm, and she thought gentle.
Gentle. She'd never thought of herself as being gentle, that was soppy stuff and not for her, not for Hermione Granger who was on the fast track to success. The fast track demanded precision and logic, not tenderness. That was the thing about love, she'd discovered. The soppy stuff was really true. It made you tender and mushy inside, it gave you a reason for living, it made your life worth going on with and... and really, it was all awfully sweet.
Or had been. Awfully sweet.
Arms shaking, Hermione turned him towards the mirror, arms wrapped around his waist.
"Look at us," she said. "That's what I want."
Immediately afterwards, she felt very stupid.
= = =
"Ah, Professor Granger. Come in, come in." Albus Dumbledore waved her in, twiddling his fingers slightly at what seemed like a complicated game of solitaire played with Chocolate Frog Cards.
Hermione sat down and politely refused a bowl of ginger-lemon drops. She wasn't quite certain how to go about doing this and Dumbledore was kind enough to allow her time.
"Professor," she stumbled slightly over the word, "I...I want to say I'm sorry."
"For what exactly, Professor Granger?"
"A week ago," she made her palms lie flat against her thighs, "I... accused you of not doing anything... constructive. To help. I'm sorry."
Dumbledore swallowed his lemon drop and reached out for another, eyes fixed on her.
"Headmaster?" Did her voice have to sound so shaky? She deliberately spoke lower, slowing the pace of the words. "The truth was I was ashamed because I hadn't found a way to defeat the wards and I was taking it out on you, sir. I'm sorry,"
"Please sir, I,"
That stopped her.
"Professor." Dumbledore looked at his cards rather than at her. She wasn't sure which of them that was supposed to help. "The... curse is effective as long as the stones of Hogwarts stand. You have nothing to blame yourself for."
Now was the moment of truth. She spoke calmly. "With all due respect, sir, there is something I should tell you."
He held up a hand. "I said, you have nothing to apologize for, Professor Granger. It was my fault. I should have remembered that the Mirror of Erised was still in Severus' quarters."
He knew. Oh - heavens, he knew.
Some part of her was angry that her confession was coming too late.
Nonsense, Granger. Of course he knew. the voice in her head said irritably. He's Albus Dumbledore after all - but he would have been bitterly disappointed if you hadn't come to tell him the truth yourself. Now I suggest you shut up and listen to the man.
"The sad truth about mirrors," Dumbledore said slowly, "is that the images they show us appear to be true. Hence they are addictive." He drew a long finger across the faces of his cards and they flipped over to hide. "The mirror has been removed from your chambers," he said quietly. "Now ask."
There was blood on her nails and she was mildly surprised to see she'd been digging them into her palms. She wiped her hands on her robes and kept her voice cool as she asked, "Did he know about Merlin's curse?"
Dumbledore's hands stilled on the cards. "All teachers know," he reminded her. "It is part of the oath you swear."
She could feel the effort she was making to keep still. "Then why?" she asked, child-like.
"That, my dear," Dumbledore said quietly, "is something you are going to have to ask him. But my guess is that he believed there had been... a precedent."
Her hands started shaking then and she couldn't stop them, couldn't decipher if this was anger, envy, hatred or a simple reaction to the emotional strain. "Who... why,"
Dumbledore's eyes were pained as he looked at her. "He wasn't entirely wrong, my dear. But... Minerva and I waited till she had been declared a full Professor of the school"
Too many thoughts. She chose the simplest and didn't even blush.
"It happened the night we found out my thesis had been accepted."
"I know, my dear."
"We were so happy."
Dumbledore was silent.
She had to ask. "...what if we had waited?" A few days, a few hours, a few minutes had seemed too long at the time.
Dumbledore was gentle. "Again, I have to ask you if you wish to continue looking into mirrors."
= = =
They stood side-by-side, the mirror reflection a grotesquely normal parody.
This is what you want?
Please don't. You know what I mean.
Her hands shook as she nudged his wet hair back from his neck and placed a towel under it.
Her Professor had never done much with his hair and one miserable Monday Hermione had tried to lift her spirits by playing with it, combing it gently, and braiding it. She had thought he looked like an elf-lord when she was done, hair to one side, and his features exposed as nobly aquiline though the skin was sallow. But the voice in her head had snorted.
A fine figure of a man
And so you are, my darling, so you are, you are.
I am not a toy
My beautiful man, she'd thought in response, stomach clenching possessively. MINE.
Granger, this levity does not become you. This is preposterous. And the voice had actually sounded savage, her first indication that either she was going mad or -
No. It couldn't be. Professor Dumbledore had been right and she had spent far too much time observing the reflections in the mirror of Erised.
They were beautiful images, weren't they? Such a pity that mirrors always invert what they show.
She hated when she could hear the wistfulness beneath his acid tones.
This particular Monday, Hermione combed his damp hair back with her fingers, using a warming breeze charm to dry the ends till they crisped lightly and stung her fingers. She let herself have the pleasure of dressing him, feeling his skin slip into soft cotton and gentle grey pyjamas. After that, clean, dry and sweet smelling Severus was usually levitated to his room and onto his bed, which had been remade in their absence, and the room freshened. Today Hermione saw with a surge of irritation that there was a bunch of flowers on the nightstand. Pretty touch, but they should know by now that Severus had terrible allergies -
There was a terrible moment when she realized that hardly mattered anymore.
She made the flowers disappear and saw that Severus was comfortable before going to have her own bath. She was soaked through and uncomfortable - oh all right, she was procrastinating. Still, it was Monday, after all. The rituals that defined each separate day had to be observed. To keep her sane and hopeful.
When she shucked off her clothes and entered the re-filled tub, she allowed herself one minute underwater. It was a trick she'd learned from the bath she'd taken after that terrible week, when she'd sunk underwater, letting the air slowly crowd out of her lungs and the lassitude take over so she wouldn't have to think about what she'd done to her Professor. It had become... slightly less harmless than that, but if Professor McGonagall knew, she wasn't telling. Plus, she'd only let it go too far once, that too because she had been over-tired and woolly headed. She kept herself and Severus to a strict routine now, the sense of which she refused to think too much about, just worrying about the logistics.
Every day, she let herself believe. Every day she told herself that this was the day the curse would be broken. Every day she knew that her hopes had been proved false.
But every day there was always the promise of tomorrow. If today's hope failed...
Hermione dove under the surface of the water and stayed there, coming up spluttering for air at the last possible moment before resuscitation would have become absolutely necessary. Getting out of the tub, she dried herself off in front of the mirror.
The towel was soft on her bare skin. Halfway through using it methodically to blot the water from her body, she closed her eyes and slowed down, letting the fabric caress her. Pretending. Remembering.
When she opened her eyes, the woman staring back from the mirror was very different from what she remembered.
She'd paused with the towel slung behind her shoulders, framing her breasts but not covering them, the creamy white startling her because it was no longer the colour of her skin.
Somewhere in sixty Mondays, her nails had turned yellowish, her complexion sallow; her hair hung in limp ringlets - it's the wet - she told herself, knowing all the while that if it wasn't for the fact that she'd been doing this for rather less time than Severus had, doubtless she would be exuding oil from her pores at this very moment.
A fitting mate indeed
You'd better believe it, Professor.
It had never occurred to her what a toll it took to be in constant contact with some of the most potent allergens known to the world. She grimaced ruefully and traced a breast with her finger. There was just the slightest contrast in skin colour between the parts of the body she normally kept covered and her face and hands. No wonder Severus wore high-necked buttoned collars and swirling robes for protection. No wonder her Professor was so bloody-minded, he had to be stubborn as a mule to continue with his job. The first years were enough to drive anyone mad and as they attained a certain degree of competence they only got worse...
My dear, if you are about to fall apart after one year of teaching, I suggest you hand over your classes instantly and get the hell out of this school.
You're not getting rid of me that easily, my mule.
Damn, she hated it when he sounded wistful. Suddenly she was angry.
Tell me, you bloody-minded sod, what in hell made you think you could dare an impregnable ward?
I... wanted you, said the voice quietly, And you were so beautiful to want me.
She leaned her head against her reflection and wept. The mirror said nothing in return.
= = = =
"Minerva." She was at a loss for a moment, then stepped back and motioned the older woman inside. "Come in. What can I do for you?"
She knotted the robe around herself more securely. It was Monday - 52 weeks, she remembered with sudden, sweet pain - and Minerva McGonagall had caught them both in the bath.
Hermione refused to blush.
Professor McGonagall seemed to be waiting for something. Hermione decided to cue her.
"How can I help you, Professor McGonagall?"
"Your parents are here."
The words made no sense. After a moment Hermione shook her head.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?"
Professor McGonagall looked at her with all the sympathy in the world and once again Hermione was struck by how similar she and Professor Dumbledore were. Something to be said for seventy odd years in each other's company, she supposed.
Jealousy ran through her like a solid wave of fire. Hermione was amazed she was still standing after that.
"Your parents are worried about you, Professor Granger. As are we," McGonagall added. "You've been impossible to get hold of these last three months."
She waved it off with a laugh. "It is still my first year tutoring, you know, and there are all those exams to grade..."
"Your parents are waiting in Dumbledore's rooms," McGonagall said, not to be thwarted. To make it worse, her voice was kind. Even loving. "They worry about you, Hermione. We all do. You can't spend the rest of your life like -"
Hermione could tell Minerva wished she'd bitten her tongue first, but it was easier just to let the anger take over.
The word made her angrier. "Please leave, Professor McGonagall. I will come as soon as I can." She enforced her tone with a slight charm, though she knew it wouldn't shift McGonagall unless she really wished to leave. Which apparently she did. Good. It would serve her right to be embarrassed a while.
When the door shut behind the older woman, Hermione wrapped her arms around herself, hugging tightly. Harder and harder till the pain diminished. Then she turned and went back to Severus. Who of course, hadn't moved.
Her lips thinned as she moved the soap across his chest and felt the nipples respond to her touch. She bit down on her lip and tasted blood.
Twenty minutes later she was in Dumbledore's office, clean, robed and to all intents and purposes, in complete control of herself. It impressed them all, especially as she was certain they thought she wouldn't show.
They don't know you well, then, do they?
They never did.
You like to think so.
He - or his reflection in her mind - chuckled. It didn't matter what she called him anymore, it only mattered that her conscious self could conjure up him or some reflection of him. Everyone in Hogwarts seemed astonished and a little worried that she could have sustained the burden of caring for Severus this long, but then they didn't know about her coping mechanism, did they?
Or perhaps they did.
Fear swept over her as she realized what she'd been justifying to herself.
She started when she heard him – it – speak.
She couldn't tell what he was thinking. She couldn't tell what she was thinking. Oh Lady.
It felt like a large hand was squeezing the blood out of her heart. Perhaps it was. What did she know anymore?
The voice in her head grew silkier. Perhaps they're right, hmm? You think so, don't you?
Her heart was hammering loud enough for anyone to hear.
I think not.
She wasn't paying attention to him.
Perhaps they're right, Granger. Perhaps you are insane.
Resolutely she focused on offering to show her parents around the school, her classroom and chambers.
Maybe not all the chambers.
She knew he was hurt. She wanted to cry. So of course she went on with the tour, casting a dissembling charm to mask Severus' chamber from her parents.
That was the day she finally accepted that she couldn't continue this much longer.
= = = =
Hermione splashed her cheeks with water until the colour faded and her skin felt cool to the touch. When she looked up at the mirror it had no comments to offer her.
She couldn't place where that thought had come from. It didn't really matter anymore, though, and the air was cool on her still damp flesh, the temperature helping her refocus. Hermione knotted the towel around her torso and ran her fingers through her hair, warming and combing. When she was as dry and clean as possible, she reached out for another towel and took it with her back into the room.
Her Professor was still lying in the same position as she had left him, and she thought about waiting for another day. Another Monday.
Fearless Gryffindor, she reminded herself and sat on the bed. After a moment she reached out to unbutton his shirt. If she had to do this, she'd rather they were skin against skin.
The buttons parted lightly beneath her fingers, opening to reveal pale skin covering his ribs. She placed her palm flat on his chest, still warm after the bath; ran her fingers down the side of his ribs, feeling for the pulse and wanting this to be over.
She made herself move away from him, take the knife from the nightstand and place it on the underside of her wrist.
She'd done all her research before choosing the veins.
She was careful with the cuts, moving aside so she wouldn't drip on anything but the towels she carried, not that there was much danger of that so early because the cuts couldn't be too deep. She didn't want to weaken too soon, but neither could she make the slices too shallow, in case they healed. As the blade bit into the veins of her arms and the blood began to show, Hermione wished she had managed to figure out a way to bleed accurately, some sort of time-release spell...
What the hell do you think you're doing, Professor Granger?
You should know.
She wrapped the second towel around her wrists, not wanting to make a mess.
Granger, you must stop this at once. The voice actually seemed desperate. If it was just a figment of her imagination then she would never have suspected herself of having such strong survival instincts. Especially since she was Gryffindor.
There's still time, Granger, you don't want to do this.
Do you have a better idea?
I'm not worth it, Granger.
Hermione got onto the bed, hesitating slightly before dropping the other towel. Ignoring the odd prickling in her wrists, she slid along his body till they were pressed together, his face against her neck.
"No." Her arms went around him, holding him tight, savouring the feel of skin against skin.
This is unacceptable
"Try and stop me," she said, snickering at her own sarcasm even though it wasn't in very good taste.
Don't. Please Hermione, don't."
"Too late," she whispered into his ear.
You're mad, Granger. You're insane.
"You're beginning to sound like you care."
"I like it when you call me Granger," she said, kissing the top of his head, nuzzling the sweet scent of it. "Did I tell you how much I liked it? I wanted to shag you the minute you looked up from the letter and said 'Congratulations Dr. Granger.'"
There was silence and she used it to caress his chin, learning its contours. Using whatever time she had left wisely.
"You kissed me on the forehead. Do you remember?"
"And I - took your lips." She illustrated the remark with a kiss.
You're very full of yourself, Granger, he said dryly. As I recall, I let you.
She laughed because she could hear him again and it was so lovely feeling him against her, hearing his voice. She ignored the unease in the back of her head that screamed 'necrophilia!' and 'dark arts'.
"You talk too much for a coping mechanism," she whispered, snuggling up to the cool body, careful not to let the towel drop off her wrists. This is nice, she thought, gently stroking his back, whatever she could reach of him. This is very, very nice. If nothing else, I have this.
After some time she felt a whisper like a touch against her mind.
Talk to me.
Please. Just... stay with me.
"I'm still here," she reassured him, touched and light-headed.
Does... does it hurt very much?
Not at all, she thought. "Let me tell you what I saw in the Mirror of Erised," she said instead. "We were in bed, and I was sleeping, you were watching me. When we woke up, you kissed me."
How very, very touching.
"That isn't a very nice attitude, Professor." She was grateful he'd reverted to his acerbic self. It made this easier. So very much easier.
I love you, she thought, squeezing him hard.
Why? I'm not 'nice', except in the oldest sense of the word.
"In whatever sense. I love you anyway. Or because of."
The snort was amused, but sad. This close together, his heart against her breast, she could feel the faintest exhalation on her neck, like they really were sleeping together. When they woke up together - when, not if -
"Professor?" she yawned sadly, "You forgive me, don't you?"
"I never asked before..."
It almost felt like something was stroking her hair, feathering her neck. Her imagination, of course, but it felt lovely. Like someone kissing her gently.
Christ, she was pathetic. Yes, drastic though this might be, it was the best way out. Sixty more Mondays like this...no, no she couldn't handle it.
Ssh, no, don't. Don't. You won't have to.
Hermione wasn't certain who actually said that, but it didn't matter as long as, in the end, the words turned out to be true.
They will be. Oh, they will. Go to sleep my darling, and when you wake up, I'll be there with you. I promise. Either way.
Turning more comfortably onto her side and holding her Professor close, Hermione Granger faded to grey.
When she woke up, the room was dark and her wrists throbbed terribly.
"I'd thank you for your foresight in wrapping your hands, but then I never really liked those sheets."
Her heart skipped a beat.
"Gryffindor colours, Granger?" He snorted. "Did you intend to shock me into waking or did you just want me to suffer once you had me at your mercy?"
The voice was as clear as it had always been. Just. She seemed to be hearing it with her ears.
"I wanted you to suffer, you bastard," her voice was shaking, "I always slash my wrists for people who hate me."
"Granger..." the word was a growl, a moan, and she could feel the heat radiating from him. She reached out to touch but he growled again, audibly. "Stay back."
Hermione opened her eyes more thoroughly, waiting for night sight.
He was sitting on the edge of the bed. Inches away.
She reached out and grabbed his hand, bringing it to her lips. He tried to pull away, hissing at her, but she held on despite the pain it caused her.
"Please..." she couldn't remember who said it first, but it didn't matter because his fingers were touching her lips and yes, they were warm, no they were hot and as she moaned against them, he trembled, salt and hungry and trying hard to withdraw.
"Are you afraid of me?" Hermione kissed his fingertips.
"Petrified," he said dryly. "May I have my hand back?"
"Mm." His index finger was deliciously long and perfect in her mouth. He shuddered, pulling out, caressing her cheek by apparent accident.
"I'm certain we're safe now," she said and when he didn't say anything she couldn't resist adding, "I was right about the other thing, wasn't I?"
"Mad," he said hoarsely, freeing his hand from her grip and inching forward on the bed so he could use the other hand to cup her face as he traced her lips, her cheeks, her slowly closing eyes. "You're mad, Granger, certifiably insane. I should have you sent to St. Mungo's."
"You want to send me away now?"
He kissed her.
He kissed her on her lips, hard, just mouth to mouth, then her cheekbones, her forehead, his hands threading through her hair, his thumbs bruising her ears, feeling under the lobes for the cartilage of her neck, fingers moving down to trace the length of those fragile strings, his digits tense with restrained strength, his mouth kissing, kissing, kissing her...
Hermione moaned. Severus stopped.
After a moment she bit his lip and when he growled, whispered into his mouth, "I told you we were safe."
Severus leaned against her, forehead to forehead and she could feel him fighting for breath. He was so thin, oh Lady, so thin...
"Yes, well, Professor Granger," he managed finally, "You're also a certified booby, not to mention almost a confirmed necrophiliac with tendencies for grand gestures - you fool," his voice was so intense that his whisper might as well have been a shout, "You utterly insane, incredibly foolish girl, what in hell possessed you to do that?"
She shrugged as eloquently as she could, considering that his arms were around her shoulders in a bone-crushing hug. "Nimue's curse could never be broken as long as she was alive. I assumed it held true for the wards that were developed from it."
"Indeed." Just that word and his fingers tightening on her upper arms. She'd have bruises, she noted with satisfaction. Lots of bruises, caused by his own, lovely fingers. His moving fingers. She was thinking of going bare-shouldered, bare torso-ed actually, for the next ten days, considering it was term break.
She began shaking again and leaned a little harder into him.
"I knew you'd break free before I was too far gone," she comforted him. "I knew you'd bring me back."
"It was a damn close thing," he mumbled and though her heart seized at that evidence of how near she'd come to never having him again, she managed a smile, nudging her mouth against his so he could feel it too.
Sour breath warned her in time. She let him go so he could retch over the side of the bed and patted his back soothingly until he shrugged her off.
For obvious reasons, neither of them got any sleep that night. Neither did Albus Dumbledore, nor Minerva McGonagall, or any other member of Hogwarts Staff. Hermione insisted on waking them all to gloat.
The euphoria lasted until Severus' second round of nausea.
A week later, he was still throwing up when she touched him.
And she had lost her coping mechanism.
= = =
Hermione tried to pay attention to the potion she was making for his hair..
There was still so much they had to sort out, like the fact that she was actually lost because her niche in the world had been taken away from her now she didn't have to juggle academia and nursing duties anymore. She'd found that relinquishing the position of Senior Potions Professor to him and becoming a mere Assistant Professor was mildly humiliating, though she flattered herself he didn't know. She'd asked Dumbledore to intercept the owls from Beauxbatons a year ago, so she didn't have to worry about him seeing the letters offering her lucrative posts elsewhere. She was almost certain he'd want her to take them.
She wasn't completely certain about anything anymore.
The little voice she'd become so used to having as part of herself had disappeared, and though she told herself she was being silly, that she had no need of a coping mechanism with the real thing in front of her, the fact remained that living, breathing, walking and rarely talking Severus Snape did not seem to be the same man she'd fallen in love with, or even remained in love with over the past year. But then, what did she know? The trouble with reflections in the mirror or mind is that the images they portray only appear to be true, and what part of him she'd managed to reconstruct was of course a poor imitation of the real thing.
She told herself it didn't matter.
It didn't matter that at night they clung to each other in short, increasingly unsatisfying bouts of passion without being able to actually manage more than a few desperate kisses before he heaved himself off the bed and into the bathroom to retch, leaving her cold and alone on the bed, trying not to move to him. She understood he'd always been a private man, she understood why he'd become even more insomniac than he had always been and she even understood why physical intimacy was a problem. It was still extremely hard to have to relearn the rules of touching him. The live, waking Severus Snape wasn't used to a tenth of the attention that she'd lavished on his sleeping form and that instilled a deep, cold fear in her, especially since it seemed she now needed regular glimpses and touches of him to reassure herself he hadn't... reverted.
But she couldn't touch him properly without him throwing up. Sometimes it all got so much to bear that she wanted to scream because this wasn't the happy ending she'd thought they deserved.
I thought you never wanted to be a story, Granger. Be thankful that you never get exactly what you deserve.
Not that he'd actually said that to her, but she could imagine it well enough.
Hermione reminded herself that she was making a potion, and this time under Severus' eagle eye.
Not that the potion actually helped much. Despite her best efforts, despite the regular baths that he took alone now, soaking for hours while she paced nervously outside the bathroom, it seemed the constant exposure to dark arts and years of potion making had turned his cells into an irretrievable oil producing factory.
Not that it mattered, except as a scientific challenge. She reminded herself that before, she'd loved him anyway.
"I think it's a protective response," she told him, pretending not to watch him from the corner of her eye.
He came closer to her cauldron and her heart picked up its pace. When she felt a whisper of air behind her, she arched slightly even though she couldn't feel his touch. She could pretend, couldn't she? Couldn't she pretend he was touching her voluntarily, that he was rubbing the smallest curls of her hair between his fingers? She usually wore it up or in a bun to protect it from the atmosphere in the laboratory.
"Do you have to make it smell like aspasia?" he asked snidely, as though he weren't caressing her for all the world like… like she was only imagining. Hermione swallowed, and stifled a retort.
"I like the way it smells," she told him, "And it's only a little, for the base."
He grunted and stood with her, watching as she continued stirring.
"You're not too bad at this, Granger," he said after a while. She nodded curtly, counting twenty-three, twenty-four...
"Twenty-five," he said harshly. She counted till thirty before it hit her.
"What did you say?"
Hermione gripped her stirrer like a weapon. His face remained impassive, his tone was polite when he finally spoke.
"This particular condition appears to be permanent," he said. "Or have you ever read otherwise?"
She shook her head, managing at last to form one coherent sentence. "How… much can you tell?"
"Forty-seven," he answered, turning the flame off beneath her cauldron. She stared at him but he refused to answer her.
After a while he relented.
"You're... a good Potions Mistress," he said, the words drawn from him like teeth. "One of the best. I'm honoured that you choose to work with me."
Instead of going away.
A little crack formed in a barrier she hadn't even known she'd erected.
Oh Professor. You're not going to get rid of me that easily.
"So it seems." His hand shifted upwards, perhaps involuntarily but then it closed around her neck and… and she hissed as his thumb scraped lightly, caressing, twirling the little curls of her hair.
Just like she had imagined.
Hermione widened her eyes, wanting to see this. Waiting as a sheen of sweat dampened his skin but he didn't move away.
Lady. Oh thank the Lady.
When his breathing hitched she knew he felt it too. "I… I want you too. So much," was all he said.
This time she had to close her eyes for a second.
"So much," he said to her, not moving away, though she could tell he wanted to. "I need …time, that's all."
She swallowed. "Perhaps another sixty Mondays?"
"No!" he sounded revolted. "Ten, maybe, eleven perhaps. Thirteen," he corrected grudgingly.
"I'd give you a hundred and sixty if you wanted," she said, trying not to let her disappointment show as his hand moved an infinitesimal distance away so it was no longer touching the sensitive spot on the nape of her neck.
"I know." His voice softened. "I know you would."
"Severus," she warned him, "Get away."
He dropped a swift kiss to the side of her neck and moved to his cauldron. She turned the flame back on under hers, resisting the urge to rub at the spot he'd touched. She was certain it was glowing. Flaming.
"...excuse me?" she said, realizing he'd been speaking to her.
"I said, Dr. Granger," and it was the words she responded to, not the tone, "After you're done with that potion, if you like, we could... test it. Together."
"That is what I said." His head was bent over something and when he brushed his hair back from his face, his cheeks were red from the flame.
After a moment he looked up irritably. "Well?"
Hermione shook her head. "What about... ten or eleven Mondays?"
"I'll consider this practice," he said, turning back to his potion. After a moment, so did Hermione.
Because of her preoccupation, the potion smoked lightly before she realized it had over-heated. No harm done, luckily, and as he pointed out smugly, it got rid of the overly sweet smell of aspasia. Rather than retort, Hermione merely told him to shut up and bend down so she could wash his hair. He complied, with only mild complaints, and later, as they lay in the tub, slick skin against skin, warm water lapping against them, his beating heart loud and frightened against her ear, she realized that she could probably stand another sixty Mondays like this.
How about a hundred and sixty?
Two hundred and sixty.
He snorted. She smiled and kissed his chest, loving how he hissed when she did that. Kissed him again, moving up, entangling their fingers, letting her hands and his run through gloriously wet, scented hair. He tensed, but slowly, as they touched and mapped each other. She moved back to give him space but he didn't take it.
Oh Professor. Foolish, Gryffindor Professor.
To prove her point, she moved her hand below the water and he arched his back, gritting his teeth. When she would have stopped he hissed a negative.
Slowly she continued.
It was a while before he told her to stop. By then the water had grown cool.
Severus leaned back, sweating. She cast a warming charm on the water and then used her hands to pour water over his chest.
She couldn't decipher his expression.
Should I stop?
He opened his eyes, their expression clouded.
Two hundred and sixty weeks of this?
She pretended to consider.
Well, it's not quite forever, but it'll do for a start.
His hands came up out of the water, but stilled before he could touch her. She waited, trembling lightly, possibly because she was cold.
You're certifiable, Granger.
But you love me anyway.
Shut up. Just shut up.
If you have to do something with that mouth –
She kissed him. And he kissed back.
When they broke away he was breathless for all the right reasons. And oh Lady, yes, she could give him all the time he needed, as long as that was what she had to look forward to.
All the time in the world.
"Six more Mondays," what was he said.
"Maybe only four."
She pressed him back against the tub. "Don't hurry yourself on my account."
"Don't stay yourself on mine. Unless you'd rather discuss the properties of ropeweed for a month more than necessary."
"Five weeks," said Hermione, "And that's my expert opinion."
"Good," he said, with just the barest trace of relief. "Now can we get out of this tub before I wrinkle?"
She didn't move. Severus sighed.
"Please, Dr. Granger?"
She was out of the tub before he'd managed to finish the sentence.
In case it isn't clear enough, my inspiration is the old Arthurian tale of Nimue and Merlin, in which Merlin's apprentice, Nimue, becomes his lover, surpasses her master and locks him in a glass tower/oaken tree. I have a theory that schools of wizardry were therefore established in order to prevent these sort of co-dependant, abusive relationships, also to give the student exposure to more than one sort of wizardry. As a consequence, I imagine that there is some sort of magic built into these schools that ensures anyone taking advantage of or abusing a student suffers a ghastly fate. This theory is actually borne out by canon. Sirius goes to Azkaban for a crime he did not commit, though he was never punished for a crime he did intend to commit. Quirrell/Voldemort spend all of Harry's first year trying to kill him but in the end are defeated by the Potter child and Quirrell quite literally breaks apart.
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