Alas! I have not hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,
Nor that content surpassing wealth
The sage in meditation found,
And walked with inward glory crowned –
Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.
Others I see whom these surround –
Smiling they live, and call life pleasure; -
To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples
Hermione reached out to stifle her insistent alarm clock: It was only seven o'clock – she had plenty of time to snooze before she was due at Belgrave Square. A week had passed since their first meeting at Belgrave House, and despite her misgivings, she had to admit she was rather enjoying herself.
To her astonishment, Draco had turned out to be the life and soul of the group. She'd no idea if he'd changed completely since the end of the war or if she'd never really known him in the first place. Either way, she was actually enjoying his company. Draco Malfoy, of all people.
Snuggling further under her duvet, she thought about her first week at Belgrave. After her disastrous meeting with Severus Snape, she'd gone out for dinner with Padma, Dean and Neville. Padma and Dean had seemed rather taken with one another, and she was worried that her best friend was rushing things. Padma had been so besotted by her little nephew and so envious of her twin sister's happy marriage that Hermione feared she was latching on to Dean. Seamus was, after all, Dean's best friend; Parvati would be thrilled if her sister chose Dean as a husband.
Their first class in Magical Cookery had been hilarious. Their tutor was a batty old witch called Hortensia Splattermore. They'd been given the instructions for cooking a turkey and ham pie, and although most of them had found it easy enough, it had soon become obvious that Draco, Blaise and Pansy had never prepared a meal in their lives. The chaos at their respective desks had been the cause of much hilarity, and when the class had finished, Madam Splattermore had announced Dean's pie as the clear winner, earning him a beaming smile from Padma.
Domestic Magic was the dullest class of all, although the two-hour long lecture on magical plumbing had given Hermione plenty of opportunity to inspect her prospective spouses from beneath her mane of curls. She'd watched Draco for ages; he was certainly good-looking, as was Blaise. Then she'd turned her scrutiny to Michael Corner, Ginny's ex-boyfriend. He was a bit of a colourless character, and not nearly as attractive as Draco. Besides Neville, her only other option was a tall, dark young man, whose name she still hadn't learned. He'd turned up to the classes, but she hadn't once spotted him in the common room.
Female Health was by far the worst of the classes. It was suspiciously like an ante-natal class. There'd been no mention at all of contraception, just two hours of 'babies are wonderful' propaganda and a lecture on the merits of the Marriage Act.
Their Friday morning class, Pre-Marriage Counselling, had been the most entertaining. Their counsellor had asked them to divide into two groups, male and female, and come up with a list of expectations they had about marriage. The girls' list had included 'love', 'security', 'support' and 'children'; the boys' list, on the other hand, was more along the lines of 'home-cooked meals', 'regular sex' and (she rather suspected Draco had been behind this one) 'full Swedish massages'. It had certainly provided an illuminating insight into the mind of the twenty-something male.
Peeping at her alarm clock through bleary eyes, she saw that it was after seven-thirty. Yawning, she grabbed a towel and headed for the bathroom, bestowing a good morning kiss on her father as he passed by. She brushed her teeth while she waited for the water to warm up and frowned at her reflection in the mirror: it was Tuesday, which meant she had her weekly meeting with Severus Snape. Stepping beneath the hot water, she scrubbed at her skin, trying to rid herself of the sudden, overwhelming feeling of anxiety.
Hermione dreaded seeing him again. Not one of the other candidates had complained about their meeting with him. Neville had even expressed surprise that Snape had been so polite. Hurt that he'd been so rude to her, Hermione hadn't mentioned his behaviour to the others, not even to Padma. He hated her because she'd saved his life. She was sure of it.
She'd never forget that day. As morning had broken in the hours after the defeat of Voldemort, she, Ron and Harry had been in the Headmaster's office when she'd finally realised. Harry had told Dumbledore's portrait that he was going to put the Elder Wand back in the white marble tomb, and they'd turned to leave the office. Hermione had given Dumbledore's portrait one last glance before she'd been struck by complete horror. She'd grabbed Harry's arm in shock.
"Hermione," he'd whispered. "What's wrong?"
"He's still alive!" she'd cried, clapping her hands over her mouth. "Oh, Merlin! He's still alive, and we just left him!"
Harry and Ron had exchanged a confused glance. "Hermione," Ron had said gently, "he's dead. Fred is gone …"
She'd shaken her head. "No. Not Fred. Snape! Professor Snape is still alive!"
Harry had said, "Hermione, he's gone. We watched him die!"
"He was Headmaster, Harry. If he's dead, where's his portrait? You told us that Dumbledore's portrait was here only an hour or two after he'd died, didn't you?"
Harry and Ron had looked around the room. "Maybe he hadn't been Headmaster long enough or something?" Harry had suggested.
"No! It doesn't work like that. He should be here! He's alive!" She'd fled down the staircase, running blindly through the rubble-strewn corridors. Tears had started to flow. She couldn't believe they'd left him without even checking for a pulse. Ron and Harry had run after her, all of them heading for the front doors of the castle. Extracting her wand from beneath her robes as they ran, she'd cried, "Accio Dittany!"
They'd stopped by the doors, waited for the whoosh of the approaching bottle, but none had come. "Ron," she'd said urgently, "go and get Madam Pomfrey. Tell her to come and to bring Dittany and a Blood-Replenishing Potion."
"Harry," she'd ordered, "get Professor McGonagall and tell her what's happened. Tell her to summon the Healers from St. Mungo's and to meet us at the Shrieking Shack."
They'd nodded their understanding and had raced back to the Great Hall. Hermione had fled across the grounds to the Whomping Willow, her heart thumping in her chest, guilt and terror battling for supremacy in her mind. She'd reached the tree and had descended into the tunnel, running as fast as she had dared along the uneven passageway. When she'd reached the end, she'd pulled herself through the hole and into the room where her former teacher still lay, unmoving and white as death.
"Professor?" she'd whispered as she'd crawled towards him. "Professor Snape? Can you hear me?"
He'd made no movement. His eyes had been open, and a sob had escaped her throat. He'd certainly looked dead. With shaking hands, she'd reached out to grasp his wrist, her trembling fingers feeling for a pulse. For the first few seconds she'd felt nothing, and she'd thought it was too late. But then she'd felt it: the tiny flutter that had told her he was still alive.
"You're alive!" she'd cried and had bent down upon the filthy floor. She'd looked into his still-glassy eyes, searching for something, anything that might confirm his still-beating heart.
"Can you hear me, Professor?" She'd touched the side of his face; his skin had been cold. Taking her wand from beneath her robes, she'd whispered, "Ennervate!" Nothing. Was he paralysed? Could he even be still conscious, just unable to move? Looking in dismay at the pool of congealed blood all around her, she'd realised she'd been kneeling in it. There was so much of it that she couldn't believe there'd still been a pulse.
Not knowing what else she could do, she'd inched forward and gently lifted his head. Positioning her legs below him, she'd placed his head in her lap and had started to stroke his hair, tears flowing down her face and splashing on his ashen cheek.
"If you can hear this, Professor, I want you to know that I'm sorry," she'd whispered. "I'm sorry we left you; we just presumed you were dead!"
She'd stopped for a moment, trying to blink back the tears. "I was so stupid, Professor. I forgot that snake venom can paralyse without actually killing you. I'm so, so sorry.
"If you can hear me, I want you to know that you're the bravest man I ever knew." She'd looked into his black eyes for a moment, sure that he was already gone, certain he wouldn't make it.
"I'm sorry for all the times I doubted you. Harry told us about what he saw in the Pensieve; I can't believe what you've gone through for so long … all for Harry's sake … for his mother's sake. Before he finished Voldemort, Harry told him that you'd loved his mother … Lily. Voldemort knew which side you were on before he died; I hope that's some consolation, at least."
As the early morning light had seeped through the wooden slats of the shack, she'd heard voices approaching from the tunnel. She'd lowered her voice to a whisper. "Harry told Ron and me what he saw in your memories. I swear, Professor, we'll never tell another soul. They heard Harry tell Voldemort you'd loved his mother, but that's all they know. If you make it, I'll … I'll return your memories to you when you're better. If you don't get better …" she'd stifled a small sob, "I'll destroy the memories. I promise."
The voices in the tunnel had grown louder. She'd taken one last look into the empty depths of his black eyes and had wiped her tears with the sleeve of her grubby cardigan. He was so still, so white that she didn't dare believe he might make it. Leaning closer to his ear, she'd whispered, "Thank you, Professor Snape. Thank you for everything. I will always, always be sorry that we took so long to come back to you."
Then Ron had climbed through the hole and into the room, followed by Poppy Pomfrey.
"Out of my way, Ronald!" Madam Pomfrey had snapped, her eyes widening as she took in the sight of her colleague. Reaching for his wrist, she'd locked gazes with Hermione. "You were right. He's still alive." She looked at the blood on the floor. "Although goodness knows how; he should be dead."
Reaching into her robes, she'd extracted a small, clear bottle. "Hold his head back a little, that's it … I'm going to apply the Dittany directly onto his neck. I hope he's unconscious because this will sting dreadfully."
There'd been a loud hissing when the drops of Dittany had fallen onto the wounds. To Hermione's dismay, they hadn't healed, although the thin trickle of blood that was still coming from his neck had stopped.
"There's not much we can do for a venomous bite like that; he needs to go straight to St. Mungo's." Madam Pomfrey had looked at Hermione once more. "Let's get some Blood-Replenishing Potion into him; it will keep him alive until he gets to London."
Hermione had elevated his head while Madam Pomfrey had poured as much of the potion as she could into his mouth and had massaged his punctured neck to get him to swallow. There had been a sudden ruckus from outside the shack.
"Hermione?" Harry had called.
"In here!" she'd replied before Harry, Minerva McGonagall and two Healers had burst into the room. Within seconds, they'd conjured a stretcher, levitated Severus Snape from the floor and had Apparated to St. Mungo's.
Hermione had stood, staring at the spot where they'd disappeared for what had felt like hours, tears of guilt and fatigue falling down her dirt-stained cheeks until Minerva McGonagall had put a gentle hand on her arm.
"Miss Granger," she'd murmured. "You are overwrought. Come … let us return to the castle."
Hermione had turned anguished eyes towards the Headmistress. "I should've checked before we left him … hours and hours ago! What if he's been lying here, conscious and in agony for all that time?"
"Miss Granger … Hermione," she'd replied, her eyes kind, "so many people have died tonight. How many are still in pain up at the school? How many could we have saved if only we'd done things a little differently?" She had lifted Hermione's chin. "You saved his life, Hermione. That's enough."
Five years had passed since that day, and guilt still gnawed at her from time to time. She stepped out of the shower and wrapped a fluffy towel around her shoulders, wondering if he hated her because she had saved his life, or because she hadn't saved it quickly enough?
"Good morning, you two!" Hermione announced cheerily as she perched on the arm of the sofa next to Neville and Padma.
Neville's cheeks turned bright pink, and he murmured something about needing the bathroom before practically leaping from the sofa and sprinting through the common room door.
Hermione and Padma shared a bewildered look. "What was that about?" asked Padma.
"No idea," Hermione replied. "What were you talking about before I came over?"
Padma shrugged. "Nothing, really. Hogwarts … plants … that sort of thing."
Still puzzling over Neville's strange behaviour, they made their way to Magical Cookery class, where this week's task was apple and blackberry pie.
"Can't she cook anything other than pies?" Draco hissed to Hermione.
Hermione smiled. "You're one to talk, Draco. Can't you cook anything other than toast?"
"Can't even cook toast," he replied, smirking. "In fact, I couldn't even tell you where our kitchen is."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "You'll make a wonderful husband."
"You see, Granger," he whispered, "my domestic talents lie elsewhere: in the bedroom, for instance."
Hermione sniggered, earning a glare from Madam Splattermore and a raised eyebrow from Padma. At the end of the class, Padma's pie was pronounced the winner.
"I knew it!" said Dean while they removed their aprons. "We're a match made in heaven. We could get married and open a pie shop!"
Padma giggled and blushed prettily. Hermione, feeling rather surplus to requirements, looked at her watch and gasped.
"What's wrong?" asked Padma.
"We ran over. I'm ten minutes late for my meeting with Snape!"
Flinging her apron onto the worktop, she fled through the door and took the stairs two at a time. When she arrived at the office door, she was panting heavily. Tucking her stray curls behind her ears in an effort to look respectable, she knocked and then opened the door.
Severus Snape was sitting behind his desk again, his arms folded and a frown of annoyance on his face.
"I'm sorry I'm late. Cookery class ran a few minutes over," she gushed, nervous already.
"I see," he muttered. "That would explain the flour on your nose."
Hermione's hand flew to her nose, her colour rising.
"Sit, Miss Granger," he spat, gesturing towards the empty seat.
She took the chair, self-consciously rubbing her floury hands on her jeans. He regarded her for a moment, a strange expression on his face. She tried not to bite at her nails while she waited for him to speak.
He opened a green folder lying on the desk and extracted a thick, official-looking document. His eyes moved over it and then he placed it back on the desk. Returning his gaze to her face, he leaned forward and laced his fingers. Hermione wondered for a second if he had reconsidered her for the position of Potions Assistant.
"It appears congratulations are in order, Miss Granger."
She looked into the black eyes of her former professor and frowned. "Excuse me, sir?"
"You heard me, Miss Granger," he said, returning her frown. "Astonishing as it may seem, you've become the first candidate to receive a formal offer of marriage."
Oblivious to his insult, Hermione felt the blood drain from her face. She opened her mouth to speak, but quickly snapped it shut again, not knowing what to say.
"Gryffindors," Snape muttered with a sneer. "Always blatantly transparent. I take it your astonishment indicates you were not aware the offer was to be made?"
She stared at him. Who on earth could have made an offer for her? "No, sir, I'd no idea."
He picked up the document and waved it at her. "A formal offer was made for your hand in marriage yesterday afternoon. I have the details for your perusal."
Hermione looked at the document as if it were a poisonous snake. She ran through the possibilities in her mind. Draco? No, it couldn't be … He had been joking when he asked her to marry him. Michael Corner? She'd caught him looking at her on more than one occasion, but they'd barely even spoken. Blaise? No, they hated each other. She was mystified.
"Who?" she asked.
With obvious enjoyment, he answered, "Neville Longbottom."
"What?" she cried. Her breathing felt laboured, as though someone had thumped her in the chest. She put her face in her hands, suddenly understanding Neville's strange behaviour that morning. "What on earth is he thinking!"
Snape pushed the document across the desk towards her. "You have forty-eight hours to review the proposal. The formal offer includes all details of Mister Longbottom's family tree, wealth and curriculum vitae. You must report to me on—"
"No!" she interrupted, pushing the parchment back towards him across.
"How dare you interrupt, Miss Granger. What do you mean, 'no'?"
"I don't need to read it; the answer is no. I will not marry Neville Longbottom."
With a scowl he asked, "Might I venture to ask on what grounds you refuse the offer?"
"On all grounds! On the grounds that Neville and I are incompatible." She shook her head, pressing her fingertips to her temples. "I've no idea why he's done this!" She rose from her seat.
Snape glared at her. "Where do you think you're going, Miss Granger?"
She inched towards the door. "I have to find Neville. I have to speak to him."
"Sit down at once!" he ordered. "You will not leave this room until we've concluded this meeting."
Hermione narrowed her eyes. "I'm no longer your student, and if you'll beg my pardon, sir, Neville's feelings are a little more important to me than ruffling your feathers." She opened the door.
Snape grunted. "Must we end every interview with an altercation?"
"So it seems," she replied, slamming the door behind her once more.
Hermione rushed down the stairs to the common room. She burst through the door and looked around. Practically the entire class were there. Padma looked up from her conversation with Katie Bell.
"Hermione? Is everything okay?"
Hermione nodded distractedly. Her gaze finally alighted on Neville, who was trying to look inconspicuous in an armchair near the bookshelves. Aware that most of the eyes in the room were upon her, she approached his chair and dropped her voice to a whisper.
"Neville, we need to talk," she murmured. He nodded, his cheeks scarlet.
"Will you meet me in the park across the road?" she asked. "I just want to clean all this flour from my hands before I leave." She didn't really care about the state of her hands, but she needed a moment to think.
Neville nodded again and shifted awkwardly in his seat. Refusing to meet Padma's stare, Hermione made straight for the bathroom on the same floor. She looked at herself in the mirror: her hair was a mess, and there was still flour on her nose. She wet a paper towel and pressed it to her flaming cheeks.
She felt sorry for Neville, but she still had to say no. For a moment she thought she couldn't face him. Should she have gone through the formal procedure of refusing his offer and left it at that? No … she owed him an explanation. And she needed to know why he'd done this. Drying her hands, she left the building before anyone could stop her.
When she reached the park, she found Neville sitting on a bench. She sat beside him. He fidgeted awkwardly with the strap of his watch, still refusing to look at her.
"Why did you do it, Neville?" she asked.
He shrugged. "I thought it was worth a shot. You've always been kind to me. I thought … I thought, maybe, you wouldn't … you know … be totally repulsed by me."
She put her hand on his arm. He finally met her gaze. "Neville, of course I'm not repulsed by you. I'm very, very fond of you and always have been. I just don't think that's enough of a basis for a marriage, do you?"
He sighed and shook his head. "What basis for a marriage do I have with anyone in there?" he asked, jerking his head in the direction of Belgrave House. "I presume you refused?"
"Neville, of course I refused! You're going to make somebody a wonderful husband, but not me. We're too different, Neville. We're just not compatible. Can't you see that?"
He frowned. "You mean that you're clever; I'm stupid. You're pretty; I'm dull. You're popular; I'm not."
"Don't be silly. You're just sulking now. You know you're perfectly clever: haven't you just landed a job at Hogwarts? You're certainly not dull, and since when have I ever been popular?"
Neville pouted. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm just feeling sorry for myself. I hate this whole marriage thing, you know? I don't want a bloody wife."
Hermione had never seen him so depressed. "Neville, what's happened to you? I'll never forget the night we walked through that tunnel from the Hog's Head and into the Room of Requirement. You'd transformed! You were so brave. You stood up to Voldemort; you killed his snake with the sword of Godric Gryffindor, for goodness sake! If anybody has ever belonged in Gryffindor, it's you, Neville Longbottom. Where has all your bravery gone?"
Neville shrugged again, but suddenly he smiled and turned to her. "Voldemort and Nagini don't seem nearly as terrifying as finding a wife."
They both laughed. "Do you forgive me for refusing you?" Hermione asked.
He managed another smile. "Of course I do. I'm sorry for doing it without asking you; I don't know what came over me."
Hermione gave him an awkward hug. "Let's keep this between us, Neville. The other candidates don't need to know."
He seemed relieved. "Thanks, Hermione. I'd appreciate that. Will you tell Padma?"
She shook her head. "No. You were my friend before Padma, and this is your information. I won't tell anybody unless you want me to. Besides," she added, grinning. "I don't think any of them should know. Hannah has been checking you out for days; we don't want to put her off."
Neville raised an eyebrow. "Are you serious?"
"Yep. What's more, Susan Bones told me that Hannah is hoping to get a position as assistant librarian at Hogwarts. Convenient, eh?"
Neville looked hopeful for a moment until his shoulders slumped, and then he lowered his gaze.
Finally understanding, she asked, "What became of Luna, Neville?"
He sighed. "She decided to travel the world. She wrote for a while, but I've no idea where she's been for the past two years. She was in Tibet looking for yetis, last I heard."
Hermione chuckled. "I should've guessed. Did you two ever, you know …"
"Hook up?" Neville asked. "No … I was crazy about her, though. Still am. I know she thought of me as her friend, but I don't think she … well, fancied me or anything."
"I think she did," Hermione said. "I just don't think she would have expressed it normally." They both laughed. "Why don't you just go and find her if this is making you so unhappy, Neville?"
"I can't, Hermione. I can't leave England."
"Why not? You could go find all sorts of exotic magical plants!"
He turned an anguished face towards her. "And leave my parents? My Gran isn't getting any younger; I couldn't leave full responsibility for them to her. I visit them every Sunday, no matter what. Who would do that if I left?"
Hermione suddenly felt very stupid. She'd forgotten about Neville's parents; he'd never mentioned them since the day they'd met him in St. Mungo's when they'd gone to visit Arthur Weasley. She'd forgotten what a heart-breaking life poor Neville had led.
"Mum's not been very well," he continued, looking at his shoes. "She's had pneumonia twice in the past year. I know she probably doesn't know who I am at all, but I couldn't leave her; she looks so happy when she gets a visitor."
"I'm sorry, Neville," she apologised. "It was silly of me to suggest you just up and leave. Of course you couldn't abandon them."
"I know I'm acting like a spoilt child, Hermione. I know we've all lost people we love in the war, but in a way it's worse, having my parents like this. I can't grieve for them because they're still here, but at the same time, I'm a kind of orphan."
He rose from the bench. "I just look at you all in there, at Belgrave House, and you all look happy. And all I can think about is Luna Lovegood and how there's no way out of this situation."
"I'm so sorry, Neville. I hope this works out, and I hope you find some happiness because if anyone deserves it, it's you," Hermione said miserably. "Do you truly forgive me for refusing you?"
"Of course I do," he replied. "I'm sorry I put you in an awkward position. Now, I better go," he announced. "I promised Gran I'd bring her shopping."
With a brief wave, he left the park. Hermione watched him go, an ache in her chest. She was the first candidate to receive an offer of marriage. She supposed she should have been happy, but it had been a long time since she'd felt so terribly sad.