AN: And so it ends. Thank you to all my reviewers, I adore you crazy people. Special thanks to Hebe GB, for her patience, dedication, and gentle input. Thanks also to MistressBlackSnape, for her alpha cheerleading. If I hadn't felt bad for leaving her hanging, I might not have come back to prod this one with a stick. Love and hugs to you all, you are all a light in a crazy day.
Last time, to make it official: Not mine, no money.
Hermione wrenched her mind out of Severus' memories and gasped from the pain. "Stop," she croaked through her tears. "Please."
She opened her eyes and found herself cradled between his thighs as he leaned against the coffee table. They were both sprawled on the floor of his sitting room in front of his fire. Her mind reeled from the depths of his emotions and his betrayal. After seeing what he'd tried to do and what it had cost him, his betrayal seemed negligible.
He nudged her face back toward his with a warm hand against her cheek and looked at her with his sad, dark eyes. "There's more," he whispered, stroking her jaw with a calloused finger. "You need to see the rest. I did vile things. Even trying to explain won't fully show you the depths that I had sunk to."
She swiped at her face with her sleeve, mopping at the tears, and shuddered at the dread and foreboding in his voice. "You found a way to salvage your memories, didn't you?"
He flinched and nodded his head. "It wasn't hard. I already had most of what I needed from my own research into the subject."
Swallowing, she closed her eyes. She wanted to say no, tell him that she'd seen enough, but that just made her feel cowardly and more than a little callous. She needed to share the burden, he deserved no less. "Show me what you need me to know." She shuddered as she felt his wand graze her temple.
Again she was surrounded by the primal howl of pain, the absolute devastation that turned her soul to dust.
…it wasn't his grief for Lily and the others…
…it was his grief for her…
Fool! You absolute fool! You knew he was still alive! He had to be here somewhere! This was the price of obsession! He'd stopped thinking completely!
She raises her face to him, looking confused and frightened. She lifts her hand, like a child showing off a flower she'd picked, and he sees the blood. Light glitters off the dagger handle in her belly. His heart stops in his chest and her blood seems to spread across his eyes as the rage consumes him. He sees nothing but the red staining her hand…
Rage. He's consumed with rage. He revels in it, feeling nothing more than his desire to kill this man. This petty little waste of humanity who served no purpose in this life other than to bring pain.
He can feel the blood pouring down his back. His arms grow weaker by the second, and the spots before his eyes are nearly blinding him. He's cold. The shivering is making his teeth rattle. He shakes his head to clear his vision and sees Lloyt's mocking bow. He lunges at him…
He becomes aware of how close they are to the edge. He turns and sees her plant her feet and heave. The idiot girl! Doesn't she realize how close—
He grabs her arms to stop her fall…
He feels his stomach heave, his fear nearly making him vomit as he follows, trying to get purchase. His gloves! Where did his fucking gloves go? He grabs at Lloyt's leather coat, but it slides through his slick hands. His hands… The blood on his hands won't allow him to save her…
She looks at him and he sees…
She's proud that she's saved him.
He's still screaming when the bright, pinkish white light winks out like a candle in a gale.
Falling to his knees, arms hanging loose at his sides, he sobs out his grief and loss to the endless night. Throwing back his head, his voice cracks as he bellows, "HERMIONE!"
The echoes fade into the wilderness and he's left alone.
'I have to die.'
"No," he moans, folding himself in half until his nose is nearly touching the ground. "Fuck you!" he shouts. "Fuck you all!" He drags in a ragged breath and sobs. "It's not fair!"
Even devastated by her loss, he's stunned by her choice. If she'd grabbed him, he could have ridden into eternity in her arms, and Lloyt would have saved the fucking world.
She'd been so adamant that time shouldn't be abused, and yet she'd saved the man who wanted to erase decades, and killed the man that only wanted to erase heartbeats. After everything he'd done to her, she chose to save him, not Lloyt, when by her beliefs saving him had clearly been the wrong option.
Wrapping his arms around himself, he moans at the memory of her voice. 'Severus, thank you.'
He cared. God knows how he'd cared. But what good came of it? He'd never told her.
Meaningless. It's all meaningless. His life is nothing but dust and ashes. He's worse than Lloyt, who brought pain and suffering to everything he touched. Snape brings death. Always death.
'Sometimes I think you look like a thestral. Not exactly romantic, I know, but they have a beauty about them as well and are terribly misunderstood.'
Planting one hand on the ground, he shudders and mops at his face with a corner of his filthy cloak. A thought whispers across his conscience, a remnant of the duty that had been driving him all this time.
He can give them all life again.
He turns his head and sees the crystal, still glittering from within. Glittering with the energy that she'd somehow given it.
Or he can give them all death. Let the crystal explode and snuff out this miserable existence.
'And you trust me enough to tell?'
'Of course I do. You're you.'
He pushes himself to his feet, stumbling several times before he can stand. Blood loss has left him weak and slow and cold… so very cold. He knows he's running out of time, and the knowledge brings a ghastly laugh that bubbles forth like vomit. He looks toward the cliff edge, and the turns back and looks at the crystal. He wonders if the light within it is warm.
'I'll take what you can give. We'll worry about tomorrow when we've ensured there will be tomorrows.'
He can save them all. Everyone. He can fix this…
'Gods, but you are an incredible man.'
He reaches for the crystal, sprouting from its nest of yellow stones.
'Why do I like you?'
He can save them…
'I want to kiss you again."
He pauses, trapped by his torment. He can save them, yes…. but she won't be the same.
He wants his Hermione… the one that called him an adorable idiot. Not some other who'd grow up never having known him. She could end up thinking of him as nothing more than some homely, middle-aged fool who stalks her for no reason.
He wants the woman who had such a ridiculous amount of faith in his better nature. The woman who kissed him, because it never occurred to her that he was too ugly to kiss. He wants the foolish Know-it-all that could read Phoenician but couldn't cook.
He needs the woman who knew about his shameful past and didn't think less of him.
'I can't stand that I've hurt you!'
He blinks away the white dots swimming across his vision. He's cold. So cold. Death is so very near. As he feels its claws sinking deeper into him, he knows that all he wants, more than anything in the world, is to taste her kiss again…
With a gurgle of guilt and pain, his choice is made.
It's only a matter of when. What would she want? He flails, hoping to grasp what she would consider the right thing. He could reset time to any point. At least take away her dead, even if he must forsake his own.
But she wouldn't want him to change time very much. She was clear on that. She wouldn't want him to do more than the minimum. But should he anyway? She was ludicrously selfless, as all Gryffindors were. It would just be like the idiot girl to want him to not save her.
'You don't understand. If I lose one of them, I'm finished. There's no way I'll be able to function. They're all I have.'
Gryffindors were perennially stupid when it came to such things.
He raises his eyes to the sky, and whispers, "Forgive me…" as his hand closes around the crystal. He feels the magic return in a paroxysm of ecstasy and knows he's made the right choice.
For just one infinitesimal moment that lasts for an eternity, he knows peace.
Hermione swam back to the surface of his thoughts, desperate to separate his grief and guilt from her own. Images flickered and emotions swirled in her mind, making her almost nauseous and disoriented. Overwhelmed by his madness, she struggled to push it away… his conviction that the end justified the means, his terror from seeing her standing in the cold mud with her hands in the air, defeated. She sucked in a deep breath, still wrestling with the tears he couldn't shed as he pressed his forehead into her naked shoulder, wracked by self-loathing and shame over what he'd just done, and what he still had to do, even as he was already reaching for the catch on her locket. The cold, calculation as he turned his pistol on her and pressed it against the delicate vein in her temple.
She reached for her own thoughts, dragging with her the one last conviction that he'd held. It was wrong. It was so wrong.
She opened her eyes and looked at him, seeing the tracks of tears and the inevitable guilt. He stared down at her with dead eyes, the felon ready for his judgment. She swallowed and tentatively reached her arms around him, resting her head against his shoulder. He shuddered and tightened his hold on her, pressing his cheek against the top of her head. They stayed that way in silence as she pulled her thoughts together. He stroked her arm through the sleeve of her robes with his thumb.
When she thought she was able to speak without crying, she lifted her head and twisted it around to see his eyes. "You think I can't forgive you," she whispered.
The memory of his bone-crushing despair made her shudder. When he'd seen his own memories, seen the level that he'd fallen to, he'd lost all hope and had settled for her simply being alive somewhere in the world.
"You gave me this world, thinking there was no place in it for you."
He swallowed and gave her a cautious nod.
"Oh, Severus," she lifted her hand and cupped his jaw, shaking her head slowly. She knew what he feared, just as surely as she knew her own fears. She knew the depth of his remorse, and the incredible profundity of his love for her. With a small smile, she said, "Slytherins can be perennially stupid when it comes to such things." She leaned forward, sliding her hand up his back and hugging him. "Of course I forgive you."
He closed his eyes, and she felt the trembling shudder ripple across his body. "Oh, gods, Hermione… Do you? Do you really?"
"Of course." She swallowed past the lump in her throat and leaned in and hugged him. "Oh, Severus. I do. I understand that it wasn't all you. You must have been feeling the effects of the crystal from the start. The closer you came to controlling it, the worse it would have been. You had to have been fighting desperately to do the right thing, or you wouldn't have grown so unstable. How can I be angry with you for that? Do you think Caleb spent one moment wrestling with his conscience? He killed his own brother and yanked his tooth out, for god's sake. I bet he didn't feel the negativity at all. I think it just fed into his innate nature." She lifted her hand and cupped his jaw. "If you weren't innately good, your actions wouldn't have hurt you so much."
"I'm not," he rasped. "I don't dispute the presence of an outside influence, but the crystal didn't put any thoughts in my head that wouldn't have existed otherwise. It only compromised my judgment about them. Magnified their importance." He shook his head. "You always did think too highly of me."
"No I didn't. I think you're a hero, Severus, that doesn't mean I think you're a saint. Do you really believe that it never occurred to Harry to save all the people you're mourning? Do you think George wasn't hoping for a way to save Fred? The difference was your guilt. Your need to fix the past was beautiful. I can forgive you for using me when you had so many other people's lives as your priority. Your infuriating nobility is part of what makes you you. Everything about your past went into making you a man I would want to kiss, Severus. I don't know how better to explain that."
She watched him as he pondered her words, seeing his thoughts whirling. Biting her lip, she grimaced and leaned closer. "Can you forgive me? I made you give up on your dead."
The line between his eyes deepened, and he shook his head. "No, you didn't. I let them go. I'm at peace with my choice."
She closed her eyes. "But I hurt you, too. I snooped into your past and ripped open an old pain. Not just yours, but Gertie's as well. I was petty and selfish. I wanted to know why you wouldn't let me love you."
He sighed, shaking his head slightly. "Would you have done the same if I hadn't left you so confused? If I hadn't kept shifting out of the way when you thought you could lean on me?"
She grimaced, thinking that a rather apt description. "No. I would have just deviled you with questions instead."
He snorted but then looked at her with sad eyes. "My biggest fear was that you would think less of me if you knew, but you didn't. Once I realized that fact, forgiving you was simply a choice. It was actually quite novel for me."
She sagged against him and smiled. "Oh, thank god. That's been plaguing me. I wasn't sure if you weren't still furious with me and that's why I hadn't heard from you in these last weeks."
He shook his head. "No. That's not why." He tightened his arms around her and rested his head against hers. "I'm tired of manipulating women into giving me the illusion of what I want. I couldn't go to you. It all hurt so much, and I knew if I did try to see you, I'd do something stupid. I thought of not letting you know what I'd done, trying to win back your affections without telling you the truth. Manipulate what I knew were your blind spots and weaknesses, just so I could have you. But I knew it would only last for a short while before the truth ate away at what I wanted. You needed to be the one to come to me. You had to want me of your own free will.
"When I received your first owl, it sounded so cold and brusque. I burned the letter, and the next two as well. Eventually I missed you so much that I thought any interaction with you would be better than none. I still hoped…" He shook his head. "But you wanted to take my memories away…"
"Which was stupid and short-sighted," she said. She sighed and twisted her head to see him. "So now I am here, and of my own free will. Tell me what you want, Severus. Guessing with you has yet to work out well for me."
He looked at her with apprehension and longing, and the silence stretched out between them, growing thick before he whispered, "I just wanted be forgiven."
"And you are. What else do you want?"
He frowned and shook his head slightly. "I need you to know that I never wanted to hurt you."
Smiling gently, she said, "Your memories told me that."
She could see his mind racing and whirling behind his eyes. He lifted his chin with a subtle challenge in his gaze. "I want you to know that I created this world for you because I love you."
She felt the prickle of tears and closed her eyes. "And I love you all the more for it."
She heard him swallow. "Do you? Do you still?" His question was so simple, but the intensity of the quiet words imparted an infinite complexity of aching desire and desperate hope.
She nodded, feeling her lips wobble into a smile. "Yes, very much."
He stared at her with open wonder and increasing hope in his dark eyes. His chest heaved as if he was struggling for breath, and his face screwed up with a blend of fear and desperation.
She shook her head slightly, whispering, "It's not weakness, Severus."
Her breath rushed out as his arms snapped tight around her, and he leaned in and kissed her. She tightened her hold on him and kissed him back and he moaned, deep in his chest. When he slanted his mouth across hers she hummed with happiness as her heart clicked into place.
"I want you," he said against her lips in a harsh whisper before he kissed her again.
She threaded her hands into his hair and pulled away, looking into his fathomless eyes. "Then I'm yours," she replied.
The intense way he looked at her made her hair stand up. "I want you forever…" he intoned.
She felt her face flush as she reacted to his declaration. Forever… With him… "I like the sound of that," she said with a grin.
His face contorted into an achingly beautiful smile as his head dipped down again. When their lips met again, he kissed her with such gentle need that she found herself wanting to cry. He groaned softly as their tongues tangled, and his arms swept around her, pulling her away.
He looked at her with challenge. "I want you now," he said with a quiet growl that scrambled her wits and did wonderful things to her nerve endings.
"Oh, yes," she replied in a breathy voice. His eyes caught fire, and he graced her with a knowing smirk. He leaned in and kissed her breath away, his hands seeking and finding the pins holding up her hair. When his fingers caressed her scalp, she felt her skin pebble from the pleasure. Her heart pounded in her chest as she reached up and popped the top button on his robes.
With a groan he shifted. He never stopped kissing her as he lowered himself down onto the rug with her on top of him. She rained kisses down on his face as she began pulling at the buttons on his robes. With a groan, his fingers tore at hers.
He pulled her up along his body and began kissing her jaw, nudging her head to the side and sucking on the skin below her ear. "You're so beautiful," he said against her neck.
"So are you," she sighed as she scrabbled at his robes. He cupped her breast in his hand, kneading gently as his other hand stroked down her back, pulling her against his hard length. He shifted again, cradling her to him carefully as he rolled them. He looked down on her with eyes that looked like black fire before he dipped his head down and kissed her. Parting the front of her robes, she felt his hair tickle her skin as his lips trailed fire down her skin. When he captured her breast in his mouth, she moaned. He skimmed a hand down her side and along her hip and her thigh, before dragging up the hem of her robes. She gave up on his buttons and went for his belt, snarling with frustration until he lifted up to allow her better access. He chuckled against her collar bone before he planted small kisses in a line toward her breast.
When she traces the outline of his sex through his trousers, gripping him and growling with her rising need, all pretence at seductive foreplay vanished. Their kisses turned fiery, as they clawed at each other, trying to get at each other's skin with varying degrees of success. She heard a button pop loose and go clattering into the fireplace and had no idea whose it was. He slid one hand under the elastic at her hip.
"Tell me you want me," he rasped between kisses as he tugged at her knickers.
"Oh, gods, I do. I want all of you."
He rumbled with satisfaction as he settled over her body. She wrapped her arms around him, trapping him between her legs as she kissed him. His tongue plundered her mouth with a greedy kiss as he fumbled with his clothes, and then she could feel him hot and hard against her. He groaned when they touched and shuddered as he slipped inside.
"Ahhh, gods, Hermione," he whispered as he sank the rest of the way. "I want to make love to you forever," he whispered against her lips.
"Please do," she babbled in reply as he began to move.
He kissed her as he began to work his hips, and she moaned. When he pulled back, his eyes were full of warmth and wonder. He rose up onto his hands, and her belly fluttered at the sight of him, straining and gasping with his need. "I never thought I'd be here again. I never thought you'd let me love you the way you should be loved. I've never wanted a woman the way I want you. Every night I relive each and every moment of passion that you shared with me, trying to recapture your smell, your taste, the feel of your skin under my hand, and the soft little cry you make just before you lose control."
She gurgled an incoherent noise, feeling every fiber of her being react to his words. Lost for words, she rose up and grabbed his face and kissed him with frantic need. She let her kiss tell him what her brain was too overloaded to define.
"My Hermione," he whispered against her mouth. "Gods, but how I love you."
The fire popped and crackled as their moans and growls filled the air. Rising to his knees, he stopped and tore off his robes, pulling his torn shirt away as well, revealing his sweat-slick skin. She felt herself grow lightheaded at the sight. Then he pulled her up into his arms and settled her into his lap, leaning back against his reading chair and slipping back inside her with a groan. She kept her lips in constant contact with him, either his mouth or his neck or his shoulder, as they moved together in increasing frenzy, pulling away only when he snatched her torn robes off over her head. He growled and groaned and hissed incoherent curses under his breath as his fingers dug into her hips, helping her move to the rhythm they wanted.
Too soon, far too soon, it was over. Her climax rushed up at her and she surrendered to the inevitable with a cry of pleasure. When she began to moan her release, he bit his lip and rode her through the waves of ecstasy only to be seemingly defeated by her long groan of satisfaction as the intensity waned. He cursed and groaned and, throwing his head back with a growl, he throbbed deep inside her.
He sagged down against the chair and wrapped his arms around her possessively, pulling her down against his heaving chest. She clung to him bonelessly as they recovered.
Sliding his hands up and down her sweaty back, he let forth a contented sigh. "Do you realize how foolish you are, woman?" he whispered, kissing her forehead. "I gave you a chance to escape. I'm never letting you go now."
"I do," she said as his lips left a lazy trail of kisses along her brow. "Do you realize what a headache I am?"
He chuckled darkly. "You always were." He planted a firm kiss below her ear and pulled back. "I still think I'm getting the better end of the bargain."
She snorted. "That should soothe your Slytherin pride, but I have to tell you that I'm not scared of you. I've seen your blemishes, and they don't frighten me at all."
He grimaced. "Hermione, I'm—"
She pressed her thumb to his lips. "You're Severus. You're complicated, exasperating, bewildering, and neurotic. I'm not much better. Worse, if you add infuriatingly nosy." She smoothed her hand around his jaw, brushing his cheek with her thumb. "You're also frighteningly noble and otherwise pretty incredible. I'm content with my side of the bargain."
He sighed and reached out, picking her Unspeakable badge up off the floor by her discarded robes. "I need to keep my memories, Hermione. I made my peace with the past and without them, I'll lose that. Any future you and I share would be tainted by that."
"I know," she whispered, taking it from him. "I'll find a way." She gave him a wobbly smile and said, "Time doesn't punish those who are doing it a service. Abel taught me that. He knew I would come back to take up an apprenticeship, because he knew I was doing the right thing. I believe the same principle must apply to you. You were the one that saved time, despite your original intentions. You deserve your memories. I never would have asked for them if I had understood exactly what I was trying to take from you. There has to be some reward for saving the world."
Cupping her jaw in his hand, he leaned in and kissed her tenderly. "You are my reward. The fact that I have you, here in my arms, with no pretense, no ulterior motive, and no burden on my conscience is more than reward enough." He kissed her again. "Especially your kisses. I will never have enough kisses," he said quietly against her lips.
"Yes, you will," she replied. "I'll make that my life's work, if you wish."
His smile grew, and it felt like her heart matched its pace. "I would like that, Hermione. I would like that very much."
She sighed as she leaned in and kissed him again. The fire popped and she leaned her head against him and stared into the flames, feeling a peace and contentment that she hadn't felt in… had she ever felt this way? She sighed happily and kissed his neck.
He hugged her with one arm, plucking her badge out of her fingers and looking at it again. "Did you say you were short staffed…?"
She lifted her head and looked at him. His dark, expressive eyes flicked from the badge to her and back again, before he gave her a little smirk.
She felt her face stretch into a ridiculous grin as she said, "So I did."
His smirk spread into a smile as he looked back at the badge and raised one, speculative, eyebrow…