"I have an errand to run," she told him in the morning, and pecked his cheek so insincerely that if he hadn't known better, he'd have thought she was regretting her... whatever was it between them. Severus had half-expected her to come upstairs to his room the night before and suggest they should delineate the boundaries of their relationship like the good little Gryffindor she was. Gryffindors, they were always about drawing lines.
But she hadn't. Her kiss goodnight was full of longing and promise, and when she came in a few times during the night to check on him, teetering between a light doze and reality, her hand had been soft and caring on his forehead.
In the morning he felt weaker. He thought he'd started forgetting things. Faces, facts. It was like his world was slowly narrowing down. Severus didn't mention it when she asked how he was feeling over coffee.
And now she was going off with some kind of a made up errand.
"Don't go," Severus told her, summoning all that was left of his teacher's voice and its commanding tones.
He was sitting in his chair again, cushioned and pillowed up, a perfunctory book on his lap, but they both knew that he was too weak to manage even a paragraph.
She ran up to him, clearly holding back the tears, and took his hand.
"Oh, don't worry. I'm just off for an hour or two. I have to see Neville. Neville is so good with plants, you know? Unlike me," she laughed bitterly. "I think I might ask him for some of the berries from his Magnolia Vine. They'd be good for strengthening potions for you."
She was blinking back tears, and even in his addled state, he could tell a blatant lie when it looked him in the face.
"Don't. Go," he said again, and squeezed her hand as if he were able to hold her back by force.
"I won't be long. I promise."
That had to be the fakest promise which had ever passed Hermione Granger's lips, and Severus's growing horror had to be shining through his eyes because she started crying in earnest and put her hands around his neck.
"I'm sorry..." she whispered.
Momentarily soothed, he took in the smell of her hair. And just like that, she flew out of his embrace and out the door.
For the longest moment, Severus had a feeling of time standing absolutely still. It was like the entire world had suddenly been swallowed into that pit of gray nothingness he'd now seen twice already and was now seeing its last moments before endless murk swallowed all its colours and liveliness.
When the mirage passed, he was so relieved that it was almost easy to get up. He'd made it to the kitchen only, but that was quite enough. There, on the top shelf, he and Granger kept a special batch of Strengthening Solution, brewed just in case. It would leave him a vegetable for a week after the assigned two hours of its effect ended, but somehow he knew that this was exactly the occasion to use it.
He downed it in one go. It took the potion about half-an-hour to take effect, and Severus sat on pins and needles, waiting for exhaustion to ebb away.
Finally, after what seemed like ages, his limbs were sizzling with freshness and energy like tree branches with sap in spring. Only then was his mind clear enough to realize that she could be anywhere. It was too late to trace an Apparition, assuming that she'd actually made one. He had two hours of normalcy and nothing to do with them.
Rage was sudden, like a crushing wave. With a growl, Snape banged his fist on the entrance door.
And heard a loud scream outside.
Severus flung the door open and saw a very frightened Neville Longbottom.
"Oh, Professor, sorry! What did that door do to you? Scared the fairy lights out of me."
There went her lie about Magnolia Vines. Something inside Severus detached and went up into the gray dome above him.
"I thought she went to your place," he said in a hollow voice, dead sure that Longbottom would understand what he was talking about.
"She did, and... that's why I'm here." Longbottom's eyebrows seemed to be glued to a spot in his forehead by their inner ends, and his mouth was a hopeless 'O'.
"Good God..." Severus said under his breath and was preparing to listen to whatever horror he was about to hear when there was a loud pop, which signified a rather hasty Apparition, and both Neville and Severus turned to see Avery hurrying towards them from a small cherry orchard, which marked the nearest Apparition point.
"Severus!" Avery yelled, dropping his usual perfect manners. "You should keep your woman in check! You won't believe what she asked of me!"
"She's not my woman," he snapped, exasperated that Avery would be so keen.
"Yes, whatever. I saw the way you look at her."
"Did she come to you, too?" Longbottom asked with something that sounded like a hiccup.
"What, you were her first choice, eh?"
"What are you two blathering on about?" Snape demanded none too patiently.
"I wonder who she went to next," Longbottom asked, worrying his chin.
"Hell, you should know her better. Weren't you two pieced together at school?"
"What the fuck is going on?" Snape bellowed, a hair short of an Unforgivable for both the idiots.
"About ten minutes ago, your little friend came to me with the strangest request, Severus. I've never heard anything of its kind, and I was a Death Eater, mind you," Avery said with an amusement that Snape found incredibly misplaced.
"For Merlin's Sake, Nigel, cut the godsdamned preamble."
"She wanted someone to supervise her death," Longbottom blurted out.
Severus stood as if Longbottom had just Stupefied him. "Whatever for?" he heard his own voice through the mad ringing of blood in his ears.
"Fool," Avery spat. "She wants to save your worthless arse, idiot. She thinks if she makes a Reversed Transition and gives her own time, she'll pay your... fee. And bring you back."
"What idiocy," Snape whispered to no one in particular, feeling the world crumple about him like a piece of paper in a careless hand.
"Precisely. Death does not make bargains. But she believes that claptrap about willing souls."
"How was she going to..." Snape's lips said automatically while his mind was somewhere far off. Blasted, stupid girl. Damned selfless Gryffindor, wanting to play saviour again. Severus had always believed that Gryffindor selflessness was the ultimate form of egoism.
"She kept saying something about easiest reversal and how she had no time to talk anyone at Mungo's into doing the induced coma thing," Longbottom said, and then, seeing Snape's deathstare, deadpanned, "Drowning."
The word rang with such horror that Snape shivered. What a horrible, painful death. No air made one inhale water and when it got to the lungs it felt like they were bursting. Severus closed his eyes for a second.
"Where might she go next?" Avery asked, shaking him out of his trance.
"Lucius," Snape answered firmly.
He didn't risk wasting precious energy on an independent Apparition, and since Avery had confessed he wasn't quite the best at Apparating, Snape was forced to endure Longbottom's embrace. Longbottom appeared to be so stressed by the necessity of putting his arms around his once dreaded Potions master that Severus almost wished he'd feel bad enough to vomit on the damned fool's shoes when they reached their destination.
They were met by a frantic house-elf. The creature obviously knew Snape and Avery from times before, and it gave a relieved squeal.
"Did a young witch show up here a little while ago?" Avery asked it in a businesslike tone.
"Yes, Mister, sir. They be in the park with Master Lucius. They be summoning glass, lots of glass."
The Manor was huge, and Severus prayed he'd have enough energy to dole out a few blows to Lucius's face, which had long been too perfect for his age and lifestyle.
He was imagining all sorts of possible scenarios, but nothing could prepare him for the sight that opened up to them when they ran up the hill and turned round the corner of the West Wing.
There, in a glass cube full of water, Hermione Granger was swimming, eyes wide open. Lonely bubbles of air left her mouth, and her chestnut hair floated above her like a brown ink cloud. A very distressed Lucius Malfoy stood next to the cube, wand at the ready.
Then Granger saw him and pressed her hands to the glass. The whiteness of them was heart-wrenching.
"What are you doing? What are you..." It came out half a shriek and half a wheeze, and Severus unleashed a barrage of spells to break the glass.
"It won't work!" Malfoy yelled. "She's charmed it to break when her heart stops beating."
"How could you? This is suicide! You allowed her to—" Snape clapped his mouth shut. His lips refused to even let the word crease the muscles on his face.
In the glass cube, Hermione Granger was weeping. Severus couldn't see her tears, they were mixing with the water, but he knew that she was crying her heart out.
In all his life, with all its terrors, this was the single, most horrible sight.
"She wants to help you. And I'm helping her. She promised to deliver a message, if she can," Lucius said, as if it could have excused his shocking negligence.
"If Narcissa wanted to have it delivered, she'd contact you herself. There are ways," Snape said, each word like the precise stab of a professional.
Hermione was getting more frightened by the minute, and it almost undid Severus to see her trying to compose herself. She'd ran out of air and was still keeping her mouth shut, but he knew that soon, all too soon, instincts would take over, and she'd take that last fatal breath.
A gust of wind blew, and it felt cold on his cheeks. Only then did Severus notice that tears were running down his face freely.
Finally, unable to hold out any longer, Hermione mouthed something, which Severus couldn't understand, letting the last of the air in her lungs escape, and gulped.
Snape had once read that death by drowning was painful. It was supposed to be short, but Hermione seemed to be gulping on water for a few eternities. More than anything in the world at this moment, Severus Snape wanted to turn around and close his eyes, to save himself from this sight, but he dared not. He'd called this upon himself. Allowed it to happen. No matter the outcome, her mad, unseeing eyes, her silent scream, muffled by water, was going to haunt him and ring in his ears 'til the end of his days.
And then it was over. Her eyes glazed over and her hands that had been pressed to his through the glass let go and floated up, tangling in her hair.
Then the cube shattered and broke.
She was smart, always had been. So, while Severus expected, and even welcomed, being drenched in water and covered in glass shards, it all just dissipated, and Hermione, his Hermione, was lying on the grass of Malfoy Manor, dead.
"Why are you just standing there? Do something!" Longbottom, crying and wiping away tears with his sleeve, screamed, his voice breaking as if he were a pubescent fourth-year.
"She said to wait five minutes. To make sure she actually died. She set up a timer," Lucius whispered in a daze.
"Fuck five minutes," Snape spat, and went down to turn her over.
Water ran out of her mouth, and they all took turns to magically pump air into her lungs. She'd shown a spell to Lucius that imitated direct heart massage, but the minutes were ticking away and nothing had happened. Hermione Granger was still lying in the grass: lips blue, skin white, dead and listless like a sawn birch.
Severus groaned and threw away his wand, kneeling. Desperate, like a lonely warrior that had lost all his weapons and been surrounded by enemies a moment after, Snape blew air into her mouth in kisses he never thought he'd be giving her, never wished to give again. Her chest under his hand jerked with the spells which Avery and Lucius kept casting.
"Come on," he urged, heedless of the tears dropping onto her face. "Come on, Granger. Tuck it, you've given enough of your time. Come on, breathe!"
There was a flapping of wings, and Hades, Lucius's condescending bird into whose good books Granger had got, oiling her way in with crispy bacon and tarts, hooted longingly above.
"Keep casting," Severus said urgently, remembering how an owl's hooting had dragged him out of his own deathly limbo.
Seconds were hours and minutes were weeks. Hades stopped hooting and landed to sit on Lucius's shoulder, and Hermione Granger was still walking on the other side.
The words prickled in his mouth, in everyone's mouth. It seemed the very wind was breathing them, and yet not one of them dared to speak out loud. It won't work.
The first tickles of exhaustion shook Severus's limbs. He hadn't counted on heavy physical activity shortening the Potion's effect. Avery and Lucius had stopped casting, and Snape felt someone's hand on his shoulder.
"No!" he screamed, and blew air into her mouth with renewed force.
Suddenly, she jerked and coughed and water spurted out of her lips. Longbottom gave a delighted, teary scream.
"Quick, get elves and blankets," Avery ordered him, and the hapless boy ran readily.
Finally, her eyes opened, and a hand rose up to his cheek.
"You killed yourself, you idiot," he said, kissing the inner side of her palm. "I'm this close to throttling you right back into oblivion for that."
"But I didn't. I'm back," she croaked and smiled. "God, my lungs are on fire."
"Good," Severus answered with satisfaction. The pain in her lungs still had leagues to go before hitting the boundaries of hurting like the feeling of loss that still echoed in him, but he felt avenged a little. And elated. She was back.
"I just wanted to fulfil your part of the deal," she said apologetically. "Did it work? You look energized."
"It didn't, Hermione. It's the potion. The one from the top shelf, remember?"
"Oh," she said, and Severus watched the light go dimmer in her eyes. "All in vain, then?"
He didn't answer, just placed a light kiss on her lips.
"I have a message for you," she called out to Lucius.
Malfoy Senior roused himself like a giant peacock. Snape had never seen him with so much emotion spilling over. It was a sight that was both awe-inspiring and made him want to turn around, as if he had stumbled upon something intimate.
"Tell him that I'm not. And to check the secret compartment in my blue, ivory jewel box. That's what she said. She was smiling," Granger told him, and Lucius's mouth quirked up in an almost childish smile.
"Please, excuse me for being a bad host for a few minutes," he said, and set off in a most undignified jog towards the main entrance.
"He wanted Narcissa to know that he loved her and wondered if she was sorry to have married him," Hermione told them by way of an explanation.
"Let's go back," Snape said, trying to hold the despair and fear of his impending fate at bay by thinking how she'd pulled it off, got back, and by watching the colour seeping slowly back into her cheeks and lips.
The only thing Severus Snape regretted, when his fingers started to grow numb after the Potion had started letting go of his body, was that he didn't have an extra hour to take Hermione Granger upstairs and fuck her into the creaky, uncomfortable mattress in her second bedroom.
The Potion could be administered again, but for it to have the same effect, at least a month should have passed between ingestions. Severus didn't have that month. He wasn't sure how much time he had, but was fairly certain that the count was in days. Maybe hours.
Hermione only left his side to take quick showers and use the loo. Avery, Neville, Potter, George Weasley, Minerva and even Lucius stopped by irritatingly often, the latter sappy and happy like an exalted poodle after finding a letter from his deceased wife, written not long before her death.
Surprisingly, Hermione's supposed Necromantic ability never asserted itself. Avery even brought a Sign of Contact to her, but she failed to see it.
She took great hope in the fact, and Severus didn't dare to argue it. For his own part, he firmly believed that her lack of Necromancy skills was the consequence of a self-inflicted death. When he relayed his thoughts to Avery, Nigel failed to confirm Snape's suspicion, but neither did he share Granger's sentiment that Severus somehow was yet to get back.
Days flew by, and minutes of clarity grew numbered. More often than not, the world around him was now muffled and dimmed.
Autumn was in full swing, swirling roundels of yellowed leaves and showering the earth with rain. In the morning, migrant birds crossed the sky in flocks, and their far cries served as reality anchors for Severus.
He was glad to be dying in autumn when the very nature around him was also dying for the winter. It would have been a bitter irony to die in spring, and Severus had had enough bitter irony in his life.
In the morning, Granger levitated a chair outside, to the seashore, and together they sat, listening to the waves.
When his vision was clear enough, Snape noticed the tightness of her lips, the two smudges of purple underneath her eyes and the two small lines, sadly dragging the corners of her mouth down.
On the tenth day, he asked for the top shelf Strengthener.
"But it won't work very much!"
"A little will be enough," he said, barely above whisper. Even through the haze that was his constant companion now, he sensed something, some newness, like a gust of wind in a dark cave that signified a way out.
It appeared that something was shaking the ether not only for him. The house was suddenly stock full of guests; they came and stayed, chattering away about all things relevant and irrelevant, reminiscing, catching up, drinking pints of tea, commending Severus on his slightly more established vitality, courtesy of the Potion.
Hermione looked at them all with round eyes. Severus, too, noticed an occasional tear being dabbed on, or a tight smile, a sad whisper.
"This looks too much like a goodbye for my taste," she told him when afternoon was gently flowing into a calm, quiet evening.
"Let's go out to the shore," Severus said, avoiding an answer.
The sea met them with an unusually serene, deep gray surface. The sun was sinking to the west, leaking pretty orange and red into the sky.
They sat together, huddled close under her favourite tree, his chair cast aside. There was a sense of peace about, as if something big and wondrous was waiting around the slope of the hill, not pushing, but substantial enough for Severus to recognize its presence and inevitable coming. He, too, was being given time.
"I want you to know that I don't blame you. In fact, I wouldn't change anything," he said, gently, lacing his fingers through hers.
"But I..." she said, and choked on a sob.
"There are no windmills left to tilt at . You have given me more than I can say." It was a poor consolation, he knew. He wished he were able to better express just how content and whole he was feeling right now. He'd always thought he'd die alone, bitter and forgotten, and his body would be found months later, consumed by decay, by some unfortunate busy-body, who would stumble into the house by chance, when its protective spells had disappeared due to not being renewed.
And here he was, surrounded by people who cared, who fussed and pottered about him, trying to make his going easier, brighter.
"I wish we'd had more time," she said, swallowing tears.
"So do I." He kissed her brow, her lips, and her entire face. A bit too plain for modern fashion, but an infinitely dear face.
"You will be whole soon," she whispered, and Severus knew that it was more for her own consolation than for his encouragement.
"I am whole now."
The serenity, the peace, tugged at him gently, letting him know that it was time. And he, too, wanted to give in and relish the eternity of it.
"What did you say when you were in that horrid cube of water?" he asked, his voice weakening.
"I said I love you. And I do."
"Good," Severus said, "Good."
And then Severus Snape closed his eyes.
Voldemort had taught him to fly years back, but that flying was nothing compared to the absolute freedom of soaring, seemingly not only through space but also through time and unnumbered dimensions. Solar winds passed through him, lighting his very being up.
Severus looked down and saw an endless sea below, a rocky shore climbing upwards, small waves licking at it and a few lone trees, branches stretched out wide. A couple was sitting under one of them, the man's cheek pressed to the woman's heart. Her hand was streaking through limp black hair, and she was looking out to the sea.
Severus looked up and saw himself. Or, to be more precise, he knew that the being he was staring at, was himself. The being emanated light, and Severus wanted to come and soak it up. Both of them drew closer and finally merged.
The effect was rather underwhelming. He'd expected something like an implosion of colours, senses and words, but it was merely a quiet recognition, as if finding something once very dear, but lost so long ago that he'd learned to do without it.
And then there was a voice.
"You are whole again, my boy." It sounded awfully like Dumbledore, but not quite.
"Her gift of time was accepted." Or maybe it was his mother, Eileen, but Severus couldn't tell for sure. She'd passed such a long time ago that he wasn't positive he remembered her voice that well.
"Her soul was found willing." Lily? Perhaps, anything was possible.
Severus looked around, knowing, again, that he didn't have much time to ponder. Everywhere his eyes fell, he saw glimpses of uncounted worlds, and the variety was so magnificent that his mind reeled and throbbed. He knew that he could go anywhere. He was absolutely free.
But the uttermost manifestation of freedom was that he could even go back, down below, to where a woman still sat at the seashore, hugging the head of her beloved close to her heart.
He closed his eyes yet again.
He heard birds. The cooing, crowing, squealing, chirruping of a multitude of birds. Seagulls, herons, meadowlarks, which should have long gone south, even an occasional owl hooting. Severus Snape opened his eyes to the quickly darkening sky. Under his ear, a living heart skipped a beat and thumped madly. He took a deep breath and heard a muffled scream and then relieved sobs.
"I think I'm back in one piece," Severus said hoarsely.
"Good, good," Hermione Granger replied, and laughed. And then cried. And laughed again.