The third time she saw him after his death, he was tall and strong, sitting across the table from her in a Muggle restaurant.
They had just finished their meal and were now lingering over glasses of white wine. The warmth from the wine and his gaze spread through her. In a husky voice, she asked, "Why haven't you returned? Why don't you want anyone to know?"
"I have my reasons." Snape sat back, eyeing her intently. She shifted in her seat. This was the fifth time they'd met here, in this restaurant, the third since she'd returned from her vacation to her normal life. The apparition between continents was taxing, but she couldn't stop herself from returning to see him.
Back in her normal life, Ron had started to notice that something was on her mind, but she assured him that she was just working things out with her parents and it was taking time. He'd nodded in understanding and simply held her, comforting her, and she writhed internally with guilt for her subterfuge even as she drank in the comfort.
Severus' voice brought her back to the present. "Why do you keep coming here, Hermione?"
The one question she couldn't answer. Her reasons were completely illogical, so unlike her normal self that she shrunk away from even putting them into words in her own mind. "I… I don't know how to answer that."
"Aren't you happy with him?"
Her throat was dry, but she managed a tight nod. "I am."
"Then…." He leaned forward, reaching an elegant hand across the table to twine his fingers in hers. "Why do you continue to come here, to me?"
"It's a long story," she whispered, rubbing his fingers with her thumb.
"I find myself with an open schedule at the moment."
She chuckled and took a sip of wine with her free hand. She kept her gaze on the glass as she brought it back to the table, silently watching the bubbles rise, some overtaking the others in their race to the surface. "Everything, since I started Hogwarts, was so fast. So quick. Learning, studying, then the war. There was never time to think."
"Now there is. I'm with Ron, but… I mean, I have all the time in the world now, to think, and I'm not. If I was, I wouldn't be here, would I?"
"Because of him?"
"Because… yes. Because of him." She shook her head, frowning, and went back to watching the bubbles.
"Why are you here?" he pressed.
"It's not that I don't love him. I do. It's just…" How could she tell him the truth? That she wanted more, and the more that she wanted was based on what she'd seen in his most personal memories? Swallowing, she settled on another, more predictable angle. "I've never been with anyone else, not that way, and…."
"I see." With a small smile, almost a smirk, he leaned closer. His other hand reached out to caress her wrist, tracing the veins, and that now-familiar spark flew through her body. It was disconcertingly similar to the spark she felt when Ron touched her. "Curious?"
"I… well…. I mean, no. No, of course not."
"Come now, the most promising brain ever to cross the threshold of Hogwarts, not curious?" Severus clucked his tongue. "I can't believe that."
"Well, maybe I am. Wouldn't you be?" She stopped before she spoke further. They had never discussed the memories he'd left in the Pensieve. The knowledge was there, hanging between them, and Hermione was still unwilling to touch it.
Severus watched her through hooded lids and then stopped caressing her wrist long enough to reach into his pocket and pull out a small scrap of paper. Pressing it into her palm, he murmured, "My address. If you wish to indulge your curiosityfurther."
She had knocked on the door of the small house, heart hammering, and almost walked away three times. Almost. When the door opened, she was pulled inside, immersed in the smell and taste and feel of him.
It exciting and arousing, the motions surprisingly close to her imagination when she allowed herself to imagine, the physical sensations surprisingly close to those in her dream. Satisfying, but… empty. It was as if he had been somewhere else, or somewhenelse.
After it was over she lay for a time, staring at the ceiling, not in thought. There was no need for thought. The decision was made, in her heart.
He reached over and stroked her shoulder, but she didn't respond. "Are you going to leave?" he murmured.
"I have to."
"You've chosen him, then?"
She realized, as she lay beside him, that this whole situation had been doomed from the beginning. It wasn't the right time – that time had passed, or hadn't yet come. She had been stretching, reaching frantically for a dream, trying to convince herself that it would be better than her reality. She couldn't bring herself to regret it, because now she knew. The thought was a dull comfort.
"There's nothing to choose."
"Nothing?" Rage suffused his face, then a great sorrow. He turned away, and she was shocked by the sound of a choked sob. Surely he couldn't feel so much for her? Maybe the round peg of dream could fit into the square hole of reality, somehow. She began to reach out to him when he said, "He will never appreciate you as I will! He will neverlook into those green eyes and see what I see!"
Hermione went utterly still. She stared at his back, and everything became clear. "You still love her. You always will."
"What are you talking about?" His voice was savage, now, as he sat up to face her.
"Wrong Mudblood, Severus. My eyes are brown." She swallowed, then slowly stood and picked up her clothing. Even though she was relieved that this choice was now made, it still hurt to realize she'd been used. But hadn't she been using him just as much? He had pretended she was a dead woman, and she had pretended that he was a… a dream. A construct of her own fear and doubt and willful longing.
She dressed, thinking of Ron, his open face and bright smile, and a crippling guilt swept through her. How could she have put herself through all of this, just because of some baseless doubts? He loved her, encouraged her, and didn't imagine a dead woman's face when he made love to her.
"Brown? That's… that's what I said."
"You loved her, and always will," she repeated. "How can any woman compete with her? She's perfect in memory, isn't she?"
He fell back to the bed, eyes on the ceiling, defeat in every line of his body. "You're very much like her."
She stared at him in silence for a long moment, then left the room, quietly closing the door behind her.
Her wedding to Ron was beautiful, her marriage restful and filled with love. It wasn't the blazing intensity that had once haunted her dreams; it was the type that could nurture family and friends and peace.
She was happy.
Years later, she found herself in that same trinket shop in Australia, this time with her daughter Rose in tow. They were visiting Hermione's parents for a long weekend and Rose loved to browse the shops nearby.
As she often had in the years since she'd closed that door quietly behind her, Hermione sensed something over her shoulder. Her head whipped around but, as always, she only saw a ghost image from the corner of her eye. Indistinct. Was it Severus? Could it be?
She shook her head resolutely and turned back to her daughter, who was exclaiming over a statue of a cat. That door had closed, and it needed to remain closed so that she could concentrate on her life, her children, her family.
She knew that she had the power to destroy the door and what was behind it. She knew, also, why she didn't. Perhaps someday, when her children had families of their own, she could afford to open it once again. Perhaps someday, she could let her dreams free.