The first time he saw her after it was all over with he almost didn't notice her at all. If it wasn't for that bushy mane of hair that seemed to distinctly belong to her and no one else in the world he would've passed right by her without a second thought. As it were, he did notice her and couldn't keep from stopping to observe the sight before him. He felt a fleeting moment of curiosity to know if she had inherited said mane from her mother but pushed the frivolous thought away and took in the rest of her appearance. The energetic, incessant chatterbox of her youth was gone and in its place sat a quiet, forlorn, young woman whose overly thin body spoke of too many days spent on the run without proper nutrition. She looked remarkably weary and frail, like a strong gust of wind could blow her over in a quick second. It wasn't the first time that Severus Snape had acknowledged the harshness of war and the changes that were inevitably wrought, but assuredly it him harder this time than most. Regret for the ways the war had changed people - had changed himself - was not a new sensation. But here before him was just a girl whose greatest culpability in this war had been the mere act of being one of Harry Potter's best friends. Well, that and perhaps her Gryffindor foolishness that undoubtedly led her to participate in a war beginning at the mere age of 11 that wasn't – that never should have been – her war to fight in the first place.
It had been little more than 6 months from the day when the last of his two masters had died at the hands of the Potter boy; the first four of which he'd spent cooped up in a horribly bland white room, recovering at St. Mungo's and thanking whatever powers that be that he at least had the room to himself.
This being his first real foray into public since then, he'd most decidedly chosen to do his shopping in the Muggle realm, wholly uninterested in going where he'd be known, thanks to the Potter brat spilling his most private memories with the rest of the wizarding world at large to reveal where his true loyalties lay throughout the war. But here he was, standing indecisively outside of a small café, surreptitiously watching Miss Granger sit alone, brooding over a cup of hot tea on a cold winter day. And for the first time in six months he found his mind taken off his own deplorable fate of having unexpectedly survived the wretched war after all, and focused instead on the changes that had become apparent in his former student.
As if sensing his gaze, her head popped up and her eyes widened slightly as she spotted him. "Professor!" she exclaimed quietly in surprise.
His eyebrow lifted in question as if to remind her that he was no longer her teacher and hadn't been for well over a year, but he refrained from commenting and took the seat she offered him with a simple wave of her hand. He used the opportunity to study her openly, closer than before, noting the sadness that tinged her eyes, that spoke of having seen too much in her rather short lifespan, and the way her body seemed to sag in weariness though her eyes remained cautiously alert to the world around her. He knew that feeling all too well - but had no intentions of saying so, of course.
A long silence stretched between them, neither seeing fit to break it - which in itself spoke volumes to him about just how much she'd changed. Gone was the incessant hand-waving, the constant barrage of questions, the animated eyes that indicated a mind which seemed to never stop processing, thinking, debating. What he didn't expect was to miss it. But then, perhaps Miss Granger's inquisitiveness was just one more thing to grieve over as yet another precious thing lost in the war.
As he studied her, she resolutely studied the tea in her cup, until unavoidably she finally met his gaze and held it unflinchingly. Uncannily, as if she could read his thoughts, her words surprised him: "It took its toll, didn't it?"
There was no use in asking her to clarify, in pretending he didn't know what she was referring to, so he replied in the only way he knew how, "I'll daresay you'll find it did, Miss Granger."
"Hermione." She said softly. And at his questioning look, "Please."
He nodded once in agreement. "Severus, then." And she nodded back, a ghost of a smile lighting her face, briefly reminding him of the happy girl that he used to teach. But as soon as it appeared, it was gone again, leaving her looking as disconsolate as ever.
"You seem to be missing your other two thirds today." He observed, merely for something to say, though he refused to admit that it might be because he found the lack of dialogue between them rather unnerving.
She gave a half-hearted shrug in return, which belied a certain sadness at his observation. "We stay in touch, but I suppose there's the rest of our lives to be getting on with now."
He easily discerned that there was more to the story though not certain if she seemed inclined to talk about it. He had to admit to a certain morbid curiosity about why the Golden Trio didn't seem to be the Golden Trio so much anymore, but being the intensely private man that he was, he assumed she'd little appreciate his prying into the subject.
At any rate, she saved him the trouble. "I'm tired of watching over my shoulder all the time, tired of worrying all the time, tired of these supposed 'adventures' that are really just moments of highly induced adrenaline caused by near death experiences followed by exhaustion and more often than not, frustration, loss, sadness, and a seemingly insatiable need to start the next great 'adventure' as soon as possible." Her eyes had seemed to glaze over, seeing something that wasn't there as she watched the crowd on the sidewalks pass them by. Eventually, she returned her gaze to his and supplied: "In short, I have no interest in becoming an Auror, and apparently that is where the commonalities between 'the other two thirds', as you deem them, and myself stop."
Silence fell between them again and in reality, he had no idea what to say to her declaration. But it seems she wasn't done, and she continued, though by now he was becoming certain that she was speaking more to herself than to say anything to him. Her eyes were unfocused, looking back out into the crowd again. "They asked me to go with them on a raid today. Thought maybe if I'd get a taste of the action again I'd be more inclined to join them. But of all places. How could they just forget? It's been eight months to the day. It's like they're willfully misunderstanding me. How could they want me to go back there?" She wondered dejectedly.
"Go where?" He interrupted her monologue, unable to withhold the question any longer, his curiosity piqued at just what the other two thirds could have requested that had her looking so unnerved before him.
She looked at him, almost as if surprised to find him sitting there, but answered him quietly anyways. "Malfoy Manor."
This both surprised and intrigued him. He'd never known Miss Granger had even set foot inside Malfoy Manor before. But if the Aurors thought they were going to find anything there today, they were sorely mistaken as the Malfoys had packed up everything and fled the country within days after the Dark Lord fell. Why they thought there'd be anything left was beyond him, but he supposed the Ministry had to make it look like they were doing something to catch all the remaining Death Eaters that were still at large. At any rate, it was none of his concern and he couldn't even muster up the energy to care in the slightest.
"And what…exactly… happened at the Malfoy's eight months ago today?" He inquired cautiously, hesitantly.
She looked at him sharply then, her brow furrowed, her gaze piercing him as though assessing his intention, his integrity, perhaps his very being. "You really don't know?" She asked finally.
He shook his head slightly, holding her gaze and stating simply, "I really don't know."
So she told him: about their capture, about the sword of Gryffindor (which for obvious reasons he already knew about), and about her subsequent torture at the wand of Bellatrix Lestrange.
To say that he was shocked wouldn't have done justice to what he felt after hearing her retell the story. But really, what else could he express? Sure, the shock was there, mixed in with remorse (and perhaps anger) that he couldn't have protected her from that (though why he felt responsible, as if he had failed her somehow, he was unwilling to analyze). But the overall feeling surging through his veins in the moments after the retelling was perhaps disgust. Disgust because he knew precisely the type of madness that driven Bellatrix and just how intense the torture was that she had inflicted on her victims with relish. He didn't have to be there to be able to imagine the atrocious suffering that Miss Granger – that Hermione – had endured at Bellatrix's hands. And after those emotions had left their mark, the one that he was left with most strongly was a sense of admiration and newfound respect for Hermione for not having broken under the insane witch's torture. It took a strong mind, or perhaps more correctly, a strong will to withstand torture at that intensity and still maintain the presence of mind to lie to her torturer.
A long moment of silence passed between them, in which he didn't know what he should say – if anything.
"You must think me foolish." She stated matter-of-factly into the silence, her eyes turned down towards her tea cup once again.
"Foolish?" He asked stupidly, unsure of what she could mean. Why would he think her foolish?
She shrugged again, seemingly to imply that it was obvious why he should think so. "For dwelling on something that happened 8 months ago, that probably didn't last more than half an hour. Especially when you– …well, it's not even comparable to the atrocities that you had to endure." She finished quietly, as though unsure how he would react to her mentioning his own suffering.
He really didn't know what to say to that. All he could say was, "You are not foolish," saying it so decidedly that it left no room for argument.
"Weak, then." She stated with another shrug of her shoulders.
"YOU ARE NOT WEAK." He insisted vehemently, his fist slamming onto the tiny café table, startling both himself and Hermione with the force he put into it. He hadn't meant to be quite so insistent, but he couldn't stand the idea of her belittling the pain she had endured, the suffering she had gone through. He nearly regretted his outburst, but it seemed to have worked as she studied him silently and then nodded her acceptance of his declaration. It was as though she'd needed someone to allow her the right of lamenting the things she had lived through, letting her acknowledge her own suffering along with others'.
He found it strange, perhaps ironic that he would be the one doing so. He had barely scratched the surface on coming to terms with his own suffering and tribulations throughout the last forty years or so of his life. But the part of him that had spent six of the last eight years teaching the young woman before him wanted – nay, needed – to know that there was still hope for the brightest mind he had had the privilege to teach in his many years as a professor – even if he had done it with disdain at the time.
It was a long while before Hermione broke the silence between them again.
"I still have nightmares."
"As do I." He wasn't sure what made him admit to such a personal thing, especially to an ex-student. But he couldn't deny the feeling of connection that had developed in the last half hour or so that he'd been sitting there. He hadn't really felt connected to anybody for a long, long time and he reveled in the kinship of the moment.
She looked a little surprised at his admission, but didn't comment on it. "I haven't slept in so long. Not really, anyways. Just a few hours here and there when I become too exhausted to stay awake anymore." Well that certainly explained the weariness that he'd observed as he approached. Or to be more specific, it explained the physical weariness present. But he suspected that there was a weariness in her soul as well that perhaps could only be restored by a long, uninterrupted peace. Only time would tell, and heaven knows he was still waiting to see how long it would take for him to find peace and rest for his own soul.
Shortly thereafter she stood to go, leaving him with a chaste kiss on the cheek and a few parting words. "Thank you for listening, Severus. Take care of yourself."
Brushing his fingers over the spot where she had kissed him, he remained seated at the table for a long while afterwards, mulling over in his mind all that he had experienced in the last hour. Eventually he took his leave, finding an empty alleyway to Disapparate from. When he arrived home, he summoned his owl, Ares, named after the Greek god of war. He withdrew a bottle of Dreamless Sleep Potion from his personal store and wrapped it carefully, sending it along with a note to Miss Hermione Granger.
Take rest. There's more where this came from.