Epilogue: The Buried Life
Hermione left her desk tidy, as she always did, and bade goodnight the few fellow employees who remained after hours in the Department of Magical Innovations. They looked at her in surprise, none being able to remember a time when she had left before they had. She had risen quickly in the Department, in many ways had made it her own, and that had not been accomplished by leaving early.
That evening, however, she had an appointment, and she didn't want to be late. She probably would be anyway, she realized, looking at her watch, but she hurried down the labyrinthine corridors and into the antechamber set aside for Apparition. Within seconds she was in her own bedroom, casting off her work robes in favour of some that were a bit more elegant. She didn't know why she still had such a need to impress this man after all these years, but she'd long since given up wondering and had just accepted it as a given. If at all possible, she would not be late and she would not be sloppy, and that was all there was to that.
She made an attempt at taming her hair, added a touch of lipstick, and then went to her fireplace. She reached for the canister of Floo powder, her glance sliding to a picture on the mantle of Harry, Ron, and herself at a Quidditch game during their sixth year. Ron grinned and waved while Harry put his arm around her and squeezed. Usually she could see the picture without it causing fresh pain, but on this night she swallowed hard and averted her gaze, tossing in the Floo powder.
"Albus Dumbledore's Office."
"Hermione!" Dumbledore exclaimed, as if her arrival was a pleasant surprise rather than a response to a near-quarterly summons. "How wonderful to see you, my dear. You're looking well."
"Thank you, sir," she answered politely. "As are you. I hope things are going well here at Hogwarts?"
"Oh fine, just fine," he said, conjuring a tea set as he talked. "The usual upsets with start-of-term - some homesickness, of course, and some disciplinary problems to be worked out, but nothing we haven't seen before. How are things at the Ministry?"
She smiled and accepted the teacup he handed her and settled into her usual chair. "About the same as always. I try to confine my involvement to my own department and ignore everything else. It makes life bearable."
"Surely things have improved since Fudge stepped down?"
"Oh, they have; of course they have. It's still a bureaucracy though, filled with people interested in doing as little as possible and covering their own arses…Sorry." She looked at him a bit sheepishly. "I probably shouldn't have said that."
Dumbledore chuckled. "It's nothing I haven't heard before - and thought myself many times. I continue to hear you're doing excellent work there, though. We're all so proud of you." He held out a dish. "Caramel?"
"No, thank you." Hermione sipped at her tea and made perfunctory responses to Dumbledore's questions about her job, her friends, and the weather in London. She tried to remain patient throughout the pleasantries. He would ask his inevitable question soon enough, she would tell him she'd heard nothing, learned nothing, and made no progress whatsoever, and then they would talk briefly of the past before he allowed her to escape. Severus and Harry had been gone for three years, and she and Dumbledore had been searching for the past two. They had been having these meetings several times each year, and she knew the routine by heart. She was already rehearsing her speech when he said the words that halted her thoughts in their figurative tracks.
"Hermione, I believe I've located them."
She lowered her teacup and looked at him, too stunned to formulate a reply.
"They're in America, on the East coast."
She found her tongue. "Are you sure?"
"As sure as I can be. They were there as of last week." Dumbledore shrugged his shoulders slightly. "Nothing about their situation suggests that they're likely to pick up and move. Harry is working and going to a Muggle university. I'm not exactly clear on what Severus is doing, but he's living nearby under the name of Russ Stone."
"I'm…I'm not sure what…I wasn't expecting this." She pressed her lips together firmly and willed herself not to cry. Her mind seemed stuck in first gear, unable to get past "they're found" and move on to the next logical step. What was the next logical step? She looked to Dumbledore, hoping he'd just give her the answer.
"I don't know either," he said, reading her mind. "To all appearances, they're happy. Perhaps it would be unkind to interfere now."
"If they wanted to return…it would be safe now, wouldn't it?"
"Yes, I believe it would," Dumbledore said confidently. "You know how much good has been accomplished in the three years since they left. Every known Death Eater has been imprisoned. That doesn't mean there couldn't be some unknown enemies lurking out there - people like Neilus Finbar - but those who posed a threat to Severus three years ago have been taken care of, one way or another."
Hermione nodded, and her mind began working again after its uncharacteristic lapse. "How did you find them?"
"Severus's stepfather died recently. Apparently he had been acting as an agent of sorts to Harry and Severus - handling Muggle investments for them so that they would be able to support themselves. I had investigated him before, of course, early on when we began our search, but he was a particularly clever businessman and managed to handle their affairs very discreetly. His death opened up his accounts to a greater degree of scrutiny, and I was able to do some tracking."
"Do you know anything about them…personally?
Dumbledore gave her a gentle smile. "Not really. I know neither of them is married, if that goes any distance toward answering your question. Other than that…no." He looked at her intently, settling his glasses more firmly on his crooked nose. "Hermione, I've given this some thought, and I believe that I am satisfied just knowing that they are alive and well. I will leave it up to you to decide if that's enough to satisfy you."
Hermione looked down at her teacup as she fought the urge to lash out at the elderly wizard. How dare he drop this in her lap? He'd spent years trying to find them, and now that he had, he was forcing her to make all the difficult choices. How dare he?
Something of her feelings must have shown in her posture. "Hermione." The Headmaster's soft voice caused her to unclench a fraction, and she was able to look at him. "I don't mean to pry, my dear, but do you still have…feelings…for Severus?"
She did lash out then. She couldn't help it. "How would I know?" she exclaimed. "Tell me that, Professor. How could I possibly know? We had a week together more than three years ago. I thought I loved him, but we hardly had the chance to get to know one another before we were back at Hogwarts and I had to pretend I hated him. I survived that by telling myself that in a few short months it would be over, and we could be together like a normal couple – you know, spend time together and laugh and talk and learn one another's likes and dislikes. Don't you see? We never did any of that! He just disappeared and I was left behind wondering if I'd ever feel that way about anyone again."
"And have you?"
"No." Her voice was barely a whisper, as if it had run out of steam during her tirade. "No, I haven't. I've tried. I've tried to forget him, to see other men, but it's never been the same. I've always felt…disloyal, somehow, even though he wouldn't allow any promises between us before he left."
Dumbledore smiled at her gently. "I think you've found your answer, child. You need to see him, even if it's just so you can put that part of your past behind you."
"Perhaps you're right." She bit her lip, torn between eagerness and fear.
"You know, Hermione, sometimes the heart makes promises, and no words ever need to be spoken. Go to him, child. Find out."
She nodded. "I'll go this weekend."
§ § § §
She would travel the Muggle way, she decided. Apparating across the ocean was tricky business, and given the state of her nerves she preferred not to attempt it. She packed a small bag with Muggle clothing, realizing as she did so that she'd completely lost track of Muggle fashion. Somehow, she didn't think Severus Snape would care - or even notice - what she wore. Beyond that, she had no idea what to expect from him. It had simply been too long.
Had they been brought back together within two or three months, or even six, she had no doubt that they would have been able to pick up where they had left off before his arrest. She couldn't mark a single day when that had changed, when it would have been impossible to simply throw herself in his arms, when words would have had to be spoken and decisions made before they could resume a relationship. Somehow that day had come and gone, disguised as just another day. She had missed it until she first had heard of Fudge's resignation in response to a host of Ministry scandals. The day she stood next to a silently triumphant Dumbledore as the new Minister of Magic pardoned Severus Snape and Harry Potter on the Headmaster's evidence was the day she realized that his face had begun to fade from her memory. Some days it was difficult to recall the exact timbre of his voice. He still visited her dreams, though even that was happening less and less often, as if even her subconscious was releasing its hold on him. Hope faded along with the memories when there was no word from him, and in the two years since that day, she had forced herself to 'get on with her life' or at least to perform the expected rituals. She had a job and a flat and a few casual friends. It all constituted a life to anyone who didn't bother to look very closely.
Her closest friends were still there at Hogwarts - Minerva McGonagall, who had continued to provide a shoulder to cry on and had nursed her through her two failed attempts at romance, and Remus Lupin, who was teaching upper level Care of Magical Creatures. She and Remus had clung to one another in the first months after Severus and Harry had left, and his friendship had been the saving grace of her seventh year. If she had felt like the odd one out amongst her peers before, it was nothing compared with how she felt after Severus and Harry fled the U.K. It was difficult enough hiding a relationship with her professor, but that situation combined with the events that led to his exile left her with far more secrets than were comfortable. She was almost afraid to talk to her classmates for fear of letting something slip, so she kept to herself as much as possible and unburdened herself to Minerva and Remus and no one else.
Of course, gossip over the disappearances was rampant at Hogwarts and everywhere else in the wizarding world. Hermione was targeted by the press for a time as they sought the whereabouts of The Boy Who Lived. Public opinion seemed to be divided as to whether Harry and Severus were actually together or whether the timing of the disappearances was coincidental. Fudge, of course, asserted that it wasn't, but Harry's fellow Gryffindors were quite vocal in their insistence that nothing short of Imperio would make Harry run away with Snape.
Eventually, the storm of interest passed, and in the two years since Severus and Harry had been pardoned, the editor of the Prophet had confined himself to three or four speculative articles. Harry was always the focus of these, with Severus mentioned in passing, if at all. Hermione was still occasionally asked if she knew where Harry was or if she had heard from him, but of course, she didn't and hadn't, so the questions were easily deflected.
Only now she did know, and that changed everything. She realized that Dumbledore was right – she had to see Severus, even if it was so that she could look at him and realize that she'd put her life on hold for a schoolgirl infatuation or so that he could scoff at her and send her away. She would survive that, but she wasn't at all certain she could survive not knowing anything at all when the answer was finally attainable. She wasn't sure if she was chasing a dream or exorcising a demon - it had simply been too long - but at least she would finally know. She refused to acknowledge the faint hope she felt as she snapped her suitcase shut and reached for her plane ticket.
§ § § §
"I can't believe I'm finally going to meet this mysterious godfather of yours."
"Well, just promise you won't let him offend you. He's not known for his social graces and doesn't exactly go out of his way to be nice. You just have to learn how to take him," Harry looked at his girlfriend with an impish smile. "It took me about nine years, so don't feel too badly if you don't manage it over one dinner."
"Oh come on, Harry. He can't be that bad."
"Er, yeah, actually he can, but I'm hoping he won't be. I made him promise to be on his best behaviour."
"What were your parents thinking?"
"They weren't, exactly." Harry shook his head. "It's a long story."
"You say that about a lot of things," she said, a slight edge to her voice.
Harry lifted the hand he had clasped in his own and kissed it. "I know," he said. "And I'm sorry. I just can't explain it all yet. But I promise I will when the time is right."
"You're not going to tell me you're really an extra-terrestrial or something are you?"
"Bugger! You've found me out!"
She giggled, and he was relieved to feel her tension subsiding. Mostly, it hadn't been hard maintaining a "normal" relationship. He had lived among Muggles long enough now to pass as one easily, unlike Severus, who still refused to make much effort and preferred the seclusion of his basement.
Since coming to the United States two years before, he had received his graduation equivalency with astonishing ease and had begun taking a few courses at University. There had been the odd awkward moment, when some gap in his education became publicly apparent, but he had been able to attribute it to the differences between being educated in a British public school and the American school system. He had a job he loved, coaching pee wee football – the American kind – for the local recreation centre. He didn't enjoy football quite as well as he had Quidditch, but he'd still thrown himself into the game with enthusiasm and could spend hours discussing plays and strategy with his college friends. For the last six months, he'd had Amery, whom he had met in a class at University and fallen in love with at first sight. It had taken her a bit longer; he had asked her out three times before she finally accepted him. He learned later that her intention had been to go out with him once, tell him she wasn't interested, and make him promise not to ask again, but at some point during the course of the date, he had apparently done something to change her mind. He'd never yet figured out what it was, but he gave thanks every day for his good fortune.
Harry Potter was in love.
It had taken him three months to confide this to his godfather and three more to get Severus to agree to meet Amery. He was deliberately keeping his expectations for the evening very low.
September was nearly gone, but the weather was still warm, so they walked from Harry's apartment to the small bungalow Severus rented nearby. He and Severus had been forced to live together when they were travelling in the first year or so after they had left England, but they quickly realized that neither preferred that arrangement. When they had known that they would be staying in one place for a significant length of time, they had each sought living quarters that suited them while staying close enough for easy contact. Severus had insisted that Harry continue his advanced training in magic whether or not he ever intended to put the information to use, so they met several times a week to go over his progress.
Harry Potter was now not only the most powerful wizard in the world, he was also one of the best trained. He rather appreciated the irony of his Muggle oblivion and thought that perhaps Severus did as well. He had reached the point where there was little left for Severus – or the books that Severus somehow managed to acquire – to teach him, and now their meetings tended more toward philosophical discussions. They carefully avoided any mention of their shared past, preferring to deal in hypotheticals while the realities remained trapped in memory. They discussed Dark magic and Dark wizards at length, but never once called Voldemort by name, a circumstance that Harry found ironic in the extreme. They never called Dumbledore by name either, or any other witch or wizard they had known, though Severus did occasionally make reference to "the Headmaster," "your Head of House," or "those idiots at the Ministry."
Most of all, they never talked about Hermione.
Harry had tried once, in the early days after they had left London, and the look on Snape's face was enough to discourage him ever mentioning her again. It had been fury, yes, but also raw pain – a vulnerability that Harry had never associated with Snape and didn't want to associate with him just then. He had needed Snape's consistency in those early days, had needed to be treated much as he always had and to view Severus Snape as source of strength. He had not wanted to see Snape as someone who could have a broken heart.
Since then, he had wished that he had not allowed the mention of Hermione's name to become taboo. He missed Hermione more than anyone else he had left behind and would have liked to at least talk about her with someone. He wondered what she was doing and knew that Severus probably could have found out. But he never managed to break the silence.
Someday, if things went as he hoped, he would have to tell Amery much of this, and the names would be spoken aloud for the first time in three years. It would be a lengthy conversation, and until they had it, there was no way to explain to her how Severus Snape had come to be his godfather or why he actually cared for the unpleasant man.
Back in his student days, he never would have believed that he could have such complex feelings for Snape. He'd simply detested the man and had assumed the feeling was mutual. It probably had been. Even when they fled together, his primary emotion had been dread. But a symbiosis had developed between them with Harry, as Dumbledore had predicted, teaching Severus about how to live amongst the Muggles, and Severus teaching Harry how to live in the shadows. It was some months before his magical training formally began.; his first lessons were in disguising himself effectively, learning to answer to a different name, and travelling without leaving any evidence behind. He taught Severus how to use things like a credit card, a telephone, and electrical appliances. They stayed at least one step ahead of any Ministry investigation; gradually they relaxed a little and remained in one place for longer periods. Even so, they didn't trust themselves to make friends, and for Harry, this was the most difficult part of living in exile. He was lonely, and there was no one else to turn to, except Snape, who gradually became "Severus" as the hostilities between them lessened and an unconventional friendship was forged. Even now, though he did have other friends, there was no one else in his life who knew his entire history, the people and events that had shaped him into the person he was. There was no one else who even knew his real name. No matter how unpleasant Severus could be, Harry felt drawn to him as the one tangible link to his past. It was important to him, then, that Severus meet Amery, and important that she accept the fact that his strange godfather was a significant person in his life. It was rather too much, he thought, to expect her to actually like him.
He knocked at the door with a sure hand and then pushed it open, having unlocked it magically. "Severus?"
"Here." Severus' voice came at them from the direction of the kitchen, and Harry led Amery by the hand through the neat sitting room. Her hand tightened on his as she caught her first glimpse of his godfather. Severus was dressed all in black, in neatly pressed trousers and an elegant long-sleeved shirt, and he stood in the kitchen slicing vegetables for a salad. Several pots boiled on the stove behind them, and he checked them with a glance, reaching for a knob and turning down the flame while still holding the knife in the opposite hand.
"Miss Collins, I presume," he said smoothly, wiping the knife on a towel before setting it aside.
The gesture was deliberately menacing, and Amery's eyes were perhaps a touch wider than normal as she nodded and then glanced at Harry for reassurance.
Harry smirked a little. "Severus, this is Amery. You can call her by her first name. Amery, this is my godfather, Severus Stone."
"Uh, it's nice to meet you Mr. Stone," she said, managing a smile. "Harry's told me a lot about you."
"I've heard quite a bit about you as well," Severus replied. "You've been mentioned sixty or seventy times in every conversation Harry and I have had in the last few months – to the detriment of his studies, I might add."
"Severus," Harry groaned.
"Do you help Harry with his classes?" Amery asked.
"In a manner of speaking." That was apparently all she was going to hear about that, so Amery lapsed into silence, letting Harry fill the conversational void with talk of his coaching duties and classes that day as Severus moved around the kitchen. Harry helped himself to the refrigerator and retrieved two beers, handing one to Amery and then settling at the kitchen table with the other one. Snape handed him a cutting board and followed it with mushrooms and a knife.
"Make yourself useful," he snapped.
Amery looked annoyed, but Harry began chopping automatically, slicing the mushrooms lengthwise and then rendering them into perfect squares as he talked.
"I've never seen anyone chop a mushroom like that before," Amery said, staring at the tiny pieces. "It's as if you used a ruler to get them all the right size."
"Severus taught me to do them that way," Harry said, looking down at the pieces. "I don't even think about it anymore."
Amery cast a questioning look at Snape's back. "I am a scientist, Miss Collins," he said, startling her. "Precision is crucial in my line of work."
"Of course," she said, her voice rather smaller than usual.
It was an uncomfortable group that sat down to the table a few minutes later. Amery was able to praise the meal with all sincerity, but after that she fell silent, looking to Harry for conversation. Unfortunately, Severus had interpreted Harry's plea that he be on his best behaviour to mean that he should open his mouth as little as possible, so Harry was left to carry on a monologue. He was exhausted and felt a headache coming on by the time they finished the meal.
"Uh, Mr. Stone, could Harry and I help you clean up?" Amery asked politely.
"No thank you. There's not much to it," Severus answered with a glint in his dark eyes. "This kitchen practically cleans itself."
Harry shot Severus a warning look and hurried Amery to the sitting room while Severus cleaned the kitchen with one flick of his wand. He rather enjoyed cooking the Muggle way, but he had no intention of cleaning up. He sat down at the table with a glass of wine, listening to the sound of the dishes banging together in the sink and knowing that he had a few minutes before he had to go out there and play godfather again. He'd come to accept Harry as his own particular burden and had even come to enjoy the lessons and some of their discussions, but he had no interest in meeting Harry's girlfriends. That was the boy's business and he could handle it however he pleased as far as Severus was concerned.
He heard the doorbell ring, and Harry called out, "I'll get it."
Probably another neighbourhood urchin selling something for school. He'd terrified the last one so thoroughly that he hadn't expected to be bothered again, but maybe the word hadn't gotten out yet. He sighed and sipped at his wine, envisioning Harry undoing his efforts by purchasing six rolls of wrapping paper.
§ § § §
Harry was in the process of whispering assurances to Amery that his godfather was not a vampire when the doorbell rang. He called out to Severus that he would get it and made his way to the door, wondering who it could possibly be. As far as he knew, he was Severus' only local acquaintance though his godfather did conduct a fair amount of business by owl post these days.
Harry felt the blood drain from his face. "Hermione," he choked out. "What are you…how did you find us?"
She arched an eyebrow. "May I come in?"
"Of course!" Harry stepped back, and as Hermione came into the house, he came to his senses and pulled her into a hug. "I'm sorry!" he whispered. "I was just so surprised."
"I understand." She hugged him back and tears came to her eyes as the reality set in. This was Harry. He was here in her arms. She sniffled and then laughed through the tears. "I'm sorry! I'm being an idiot, aren't I? I've just missed you so much."
Harry pulled back and wiped a tear away from his own cheek. "If you're an idiot then I suppose I'm one too," he said. "I've missed you too – more than I can ever tell you."
"Why didn't you ever write?" she asked sadly. "Even something anonymous, just so I'd know you were ok."
"I thought about it loads of times. I was just so afraid for you. I thought you'd be better off if you could just forget me and move on."
"I could never, ever forget you, you great idiot! I've been looking for you for years. Professor Dumbledore has too. It's safe for you to come home now, Harry. Please say you will!"
For the first time since Hermione had arrived, Harry remembered Amery. She sat frozen on the couch, apparently trying to make sense of the conversation and the person before her.
"Hermione, this is my girlfriend Amery Collins. Amery, this is Hermione Granger. She was my best friend back at…the school I went to in England."
"Hi," Amery said faintly, standing up and approaching Hermione.
"Hi Amery," Hermione said. "It's nice to meet you."
Amery nodded, apparently not having quite made up her mind about whether meeting Hermione was a nice thing or not.
"Miss Granger." Snape's voice came from the doorway. "This is certainly a surprise. Your investigative abilities must have improved since we saw one another last."
Hermione stiffened as his baritone filled the room and worked its own magic on the base of her spine. It was the voice of her dreams, and she had not thought to hear it again, at least while she was awake. Her voice was a bit shaky as she tried to answer him in kind. "No, Professor. I'm afraid my investigative abilities are what they ever were. Professor Dumbledore is the one who found you."
"And what, may I ask, was his purpose in tracking me down? Has he a vacancy in Potions he needs to fill, or is he in need of my less admirable abilities?"
She bit her lip, scathed by his biting sarcasm, and Harry stepped a little closer, silently lending his support. "Neither, actually. He is fully staffed at the moment, and the Aurors seem to be doing their jobs well. He sent me to tell you that it is safe to come home."
It suddenly occurred to Harry that he was either going to have to obliviate Amery's memories or tell her everything that evening. He decided to tell her everything for starters and keep the first option open in case she reacted poorly. He interrupted the verbal duel that was brewing between Hermione and Severus and said, "Amery must be very confused. Could we sit down, please, and discuss this?"
"Certainly," Severus drawled sarcastically. "Forgive me for being such a poor host." He settled into his favourite chair and gestured for the others to follow suit.
Hermione took the chair opposite Severus, and Harry sat next to Amery on the sofa, taking her hand in his. "For starters, my name isn't really Harry Evans," he began. "You know there's a lot I haven't been able to tell you…about my school years and my time back in England. I went to a special sort of a school, you see. A school for, erm…witches and wizards." He watched her carefully to see how this would be received, wincing a little as her eyes widened in shock.
"Oh shit!" she blurted out. "You're Harry Potter!"
Harry, Hermione and Severus were temporarily united in their stunned reaction to Amery's outburst.
"Miss Collins?" Snape asked carefully. "May I ask how you are aware of Harry Potter?"
"Because I'm a witch, of course," she said. "Everybody has heard of Harry Potter. I just didn't expect to find out I was dating him."
"You're a witch?" Harry said stupidly. "Why are you at Muggle university?
She shrugged. "I promised my Dad. He's a Muggle and wanted me to get a Muggle education too. I went to Salem Hall for middle and high school and then was tutored in some of the Muggle subjects for a year or so before I started at the university. He doesn't mind that I'm a witch like my Mom, but he wants me to be well-rounded."
Hermione saw the look on Harry's face and started to laugh. She found the nerve to glance at Severus and saw the humour hiding in his dark eyes as well. "That's so perfect!" she said, laughing even harder, "Thousands of Muggle girls to choose from, and you had to go and accidentally find a witch. You really are stuck being Harry Potter, Harry."
"I know. Just call me The Boy Who Lived." Harry chuckled too, and the laughter dispelled some of the tension in the room.
"I will never call you that," Hermione assured him. "But I'm glad you can joke about it now."
Harry shrugged. "Just because I can joke about it doesn't mean I want to go back to being Harry Potter," he said, serious now. "I'm happy here, Hermione. I really am. Severus has continued my training, so it's not like I've ignored magic completely, but I like being a regular person. I like being able to go out in public without people staring and pointing. I like knowing that Amery went out with me because she liked me and not because she wanted to date someone famous. I'd never be able to have that back in Britain."
"No. You wouldn't," Hermione said sadly. You'd have me, she thought, but she didn't dare say the words out loud. It wouldn't be fair to make him choose, and she had a feeling, looking at Harry and Amery together, that he wouldn't choose her anyway.
"Hermione," Harry said gently. "We'll always be friends, no matter where I am. If it's really safe now, maybe I can Apparate to England from time to time and we can see each other."
"You can Apparate across the ocean?" Amery said admiringly.
"You'll find that there's very little that Harry Potter can't do," Severus said. "Aside from Potions, which I've never been able to get him to take an interest in."
"Ironic, isn't it?" Harry asked with a grin.
"He chops mushrooms nicely," Amery defended.
"My first years knew how to do that," Severus said scathingly. "I'm appalled that you weren't taught proper chopping techniques at Salem Hall."
"We were," she said. "It just never occurred to me to apply those skills to salad making. I'm afraid Potions wasn't my best subject."
Severus snorted his opinion of that, but despite her disinterest in his subject, he had to admit he liked the girl better now that he knew she was a witch. Old prejudices die hard, and it had troubled him to imagine his protégé involved with a Muggle.
Harry looked at Hermione. "How long can you stay?"
"Through the weekend. I have to be back at work on Monday."
"What do you do?"
"Ministry," she said briefly. "Magical Innovations."
That led to further discussion of her work and changes at the Ministry, which in turn led to a discussion of the Death Eaters who had been caught and imprisoned over the last three years, Fudge's resignation, and Severus' and Harry's subsequent pardons. Amery sat quietly, for the most part, inferring much of the past through the discussion of the present. Severus remained silent as well, his face impassive as Harry and Hermione got caught up and the names and events that had been tucked away for so long suddenly paraded through the room, but Hermione thought that Severus didn't seem terribly surprised by some of the news. It appeared that he had kept Harry in the dark, but she suspected he'd already known that it would be safe for them to return to Britain. Not a hopeful thought, that.
Finally she turned to him. "So, Professor, what do you do to keep yourself busy in exile?"
"Research," he answered. "I have a laboratory in my basement and have been working for an American potions manufacturer."
"Just what you always wanted to do," she said softly, searching his face. "Are you…happy?"
"I'm satisfied," he replied, his eyes flickering away from her.
She nodded and glanced at Harry. He cleared his throat and decided to interfere. Apparently these two weren't going to get anywhere without a shove. "Why don't you show Hermione your laboratory?" he suggested. "You know she loves that stuff."
"I'm sure she wouldn't…"
"I'd love to," Hermione said quickly, standing up and giving him a pointed look.
He sighed and stood up as well. "Very well, Miss Granger. This way."
They disappeared through a doorway and footsteps were heard on a wooden staircase. "What was that about?" Amery asked.
"They have some unfinished business between them," Harry said. "They fell in love, and then Severus and I had to leave England before they could really do anything about it."
"She was in love with him?" Amery exclaimed. "Oh that is really weird."
Harry put his arm around her. "My whole life is really weird. It seems to spill over to everyone I come in contact with."
She smiled at him. "I think I'll risk it."
"I'm glad." Harry planted a kiss on the side of her head. "Say listen…do you by any chance like Quidditch?"
She looked mildly affronted. "I was the star chaser at Salem Hall."
Harry's mouth dropped open for a moment, and then he swallowed hard. "Amery, I have never been so turned on in my entire life."
§ § § §
Severus switched on the lights in the basement, and watched as Hermione examined the neat shelves of ingredients and immaculate workbench. His desk was in the same spot, relatively, as it had been in his private laboratory back at Hogwarts. In fact, despite the absence of stone walls, the whole room resembled his laboratory at Hogwarts, right down to the damp chill of the place.
"This is exactly right," she said, running a finger lightly down the line of jars. "I've always pictured you in a place just like this."
"I haven't always had the luxury," he said. "We moved around a lot in the first years. There was no opportunity to set up a permanent laboratory."
"How long have you been here?"
"Almost two years now," he said, vaguely surprised to realize it had actually been that long. "It seemed safe to make a more permanent arrangement, and Harry's been happy here."
She smiled. "It seems so strange to hear you call him 'Harry.'"
"I suppose it would. After we fled it was necessary, obviously, that I call him something other than 'Potter.' We've both used several different names over the years."
"You've hidden well if it's taken Professor Dumbledore this long to find you."
"Why was he looking at all?"
"To know that you were all right, mostly. He wasn't going to disturb you. He just wanted to know where you were. It was my decision to come here."
"Harry was happy to see you," he said coolly. "He's missed you."
"I've missed him too, but I didn't expect him to open the door tonight. I came here to see you." She watched him, obviously looking for some reaction to her words, but he only turned away slightly and busied himself with some unnecessary straightening at his workbench.
"Have I done something to make you angry?" she asked.
"No." He winced slightly and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "I was just…startled. Upstairs. Of course you haven't done anything."
"Can I ask you something?"
He raised an eyebrow. "I suspect you will whether I give you permission or not."
She acknowledged his assessment with a fleeting smile and then went on seriously. "You already knew, didn't you? That you and Harry had been pardoned."
He nodded. "I heard of it shortly after it happened. My stepfather forwarded issues of the Daily Prophet and kept me otherwise informed."
"Did you think of returning home?"
"Not seriously. I knew Harry didn't want to return to England, and I didn't feel he was ready to be on his own. I had only just begun to undertake his advanced training at that time."
"But if it hadn't been for Harry…?"
His mouth quirked slightly. "I see you haven't lost any of your persistence over the years. What do you want me to say? Are you asking if I've thought of you?" He pinned her with his dark gaze until she nodded slightly. He sighed. "Of course I have. But that doesn't mean I was foolish enough to think I should walk back into your life after dropping out of sight for more than a year. I assumed you'd moved on - hoped you had. I heard…" he faltered slightly and then resumed, "You and I were thrown together in very unusual circumstances…"
"Wait a minute," she interrupted. "You heard what?"
His mouth thinned with obvious irritation. "You also ask as many questions as you used to," he snapped. "I suppose it was too much to hope you had outgrown that habit."
"Too much by far," she agreed archly. "Now what is it that you heard but don't want to tell me?"
He turned back to his workbench then, unwilling to look at her. Guarding his expressions had once been second nature, but after three years of anonymity, he feared he might be out of practice. Despite the fact that he had lived under an assumed name, he had, in many ways, been living the most straightforward life of his adult years. He saw so few people that lying was no longer a daily necessity. No one but Harry knew him well enough to read his expressions, so hiding them hadn't been important. It had been…relaxing, actually, after all the years of pretending allegiance to people he despised and pretending to loathe people he actually cared something about. Now he was just 'that odd man next door, who keeps to himself.' Which was fine. But Hermione had known him as virtually no one else had. Their time together had been brief, but with her he had stripped himself of all his guises, and even after three years apart, he felt vulnerable to her scrutiny. Dumbledore was the only other person who inspired that feeling.
"Severus?" she prompted.
"It's immaterial," he ground out, moving a perfectly clean vial to the sink. "Suffice it to say that I was under the impression that you were happy…"
"You heard I was involved with Gregor," she said flatly.
"Yes," he admitted, realizing as he said it how like a jealous teenager he sounded. Ridiculous, of course. He met her gaze again and went on in a firm voice. "I assumed you were happy. I had a responsibility to Harry. So no, I never considered returning to Britain."
"It didn't work out," she said. "Between Gregor and me."
"Why not?" he asked, before he could quite stop himself.
"That's what I'm here to find out," she said quietly. "You know, you don't have to say you missed me or that you wanted to see me. In fact, if you want me to go away, all you have to do is say the word, and I'll never bother you again. But I'd like to hear…something. Something definite. I've tried to forget you, Severus. I've tried to convince myself that what I felt for you was schoolgirl infatuation and that it didn't mean anything. But the thing is…I was never much of a girl for infatuations. I thought it was more than that at the time. I still think so, even though we were never really given much of a chance to see what might have come of it."
His hands came to rest lightly on the surface of his immaculate bench. "No, we weren't," he said, suddenly having difficulty controlling his voice. "I couldn't bring you with me, Hermione. I couldn't let you make that decision on the spur of the moment, without having time to really consider all you would have been giving up. You were so young…I just couldn't."
"I think I understand that now, even if I can't quite thank you for it. But I do believe you had my best interests at heart. Everything's different now, though, and I was just wondering if you still…felt anything at all for me…if we might see one another – get to know each other again, as two adults." She took a step closer and reached out for him, resting her hand on the bench, stopping just short of touching his.
It was such a small space that separated them, and every instinct screamed for him to close the gap, to reach for her hand and pull her to him. He only had to see her standing in his living room on an otherwise normal night to know that his feelings for her had not diminished a whit, no matter what he'd tried to tell himself over the years. But what of those years? It was ridiculous to think they didn't matter, that neither of them had changed. He could see the changes in her plainly enough. She spoke with a woman's voice now, a woman's certainty. A quiet confidence that hadn't been there before. Was it even conceivable that he could still be what she wanted?
"I'm not asking for any promises this time," she said quietly.
He held his breath as he tentatively closed the distance between them and ran sensitive fingertips over the back of her hand, skimming lightly over the delicate metacarpals before clasping it in his. He felt a slight tremble but couldn't tell if it was hers or his - a realization that filled him with unexpected joy. He smiled, really smiled, for the first time in years and pulled her gently into his arms. "Foolish girl," he murmured into her hair.
She answered him with a choked sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob, but her arms snaked around his waist, and she settled her head into its familiar nook just below his chin. He ran a hesitant hand over her tangle of brown curls.
"Harry is a grown man now," he said softly, his voice muffled slightly by her hair. "There's nothing more that I can teach him. I think…it's time I returned to Britain." His hand stilled in her curls. "I think it's time I come home."
She looked up at him then and smiled, and as their lips met, he felt something buried deep within him stir and come to life.
Only – but this is rare –
When a beloved hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another's read clear,
When our world-deafened ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caressed –
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life's flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
From "The Buried Life" by Matthew Arnold