A/N: My dearest readers. This is, essentially, the last chapter, although there is one more – an epilogue – yet to come. I won't say much more, because I know you are eager to find out how everything is resolved. This was the hardest chapter to write, and I would dearly love to hear your thoughts. I'll have the epilogue and my last author note (sob!) up for you on Friday.

LB x

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths,

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W. B. Yeats, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

ssSss

Severus placed the last of his most volatile ingredients in a magically reinforced cupboard in his new laboratory and looked around, his hands on his hips. Six hours had passed since his trip to the Potters' house, and it had already grown dark outside.

He'd spent the afternoon unpacking boxes and trunks and arranging his laboratory to his satisfaction, hoping the activity would help to distract him, that it would somehow ease this sense of gloom. But nothing he did detracted from the fact that it seemed Hermione Granger had slipped from his grasp when he had been so very close to making her his.

He had delayed telling her of his divorce with the best of intentions: he had wanted to come to her a free and single man, a man who was in a position to ask her to become his wife. It had been his objective to come before her with a home to offer and with a ring for her finger. But now, it all seemed so foolish, and he wondered if he would pay for his mistake for the rest of his life.

Leaving the outbuilding that now housed his laboratory, he warded the door and returned to the house, admitting as he walked that Hermione had every right to be angry with him. He'd been so preoccupied with securing a quick divorce that he had failed to soothe her fears; he'd gotten so carried away by the idea of the new life on which he was about to embark that he had neglected the one person who was central to that life—the only detail that really mattered.

When he'd returned from Harry and Ginny's house that morning, he had Apparated to Kensington Square, but Hermione had still not returned, and her bed had not been slept in. Lance wasn't at home either, and Moe had failed to respond to his summons.

He'd walked all the way across London in an attempt to quell his anxiety, and, for the first time, he'd worried that something was wrong, that her absence meant something more than mere annoyance. On his return to his new abode, he'd written her another note, apologising for his failure to have contacted her with an explanation and begging her to reply to him. He had also written to Padma, but his correspondence had gone unanswered.

He entered the little house in Diagon Alley, an uncomfortable, empty feeling in his stomach that had little to do with hunger. Hours had passed, and still he had not heard from Hermione. He had thought about putting his skills in espionage to use: he knew that Padma and Dean worked at the Ministry of Magic, and it would not be all that difficult to coerce one of their colleagues into telling him where they lived, or to find their address in a filing cabinet in the payroll office. He had been on the verge of Flooing directly to the Atrium at the Ministry, but he had revised that plan. He thought he should, perhaps, allow Hermione time to read his letters and get over her anger. What's more, if something was wrong, maybe he should let her tell him in her own time.

He hated this. He abhorred the feeling of helplessness in which he had wallowed for almost twenty-four hours. Where the hell was Lance? He wondered if the old man was in any way involved in Hermione's disappearance. Somehow, he doubted it, but he was almost certain that Moe knew where Hermione had gone. The only other time he could ever remember Moe ignoring his repeated summons was when Theo had left and Hermione had ordered her to admit nobody to the house. He scribbled a note to Lance, requesting a meeting at eight o'clock that evening.

When he had seen his owl to the window, he made his way to the bedroom to unpack the remainder of his belongings, hoping the activity would help to pass the time, feeling as if a year had passed since he had last laid eyes on Hermione Granger.

ssSss

Severus looked up from the trunk of books through which he had been sifting, his attention arrested by a tapping at the kitchen window. His eyes widened when he recognised the beautiful snowy owl at the window. He had been present on more than one occasion when Hermione had received a message from her best friend, and there was no mistaking the striking owl that belonged to Padma and Dean Thomas.

His heart thumping with a strange mixture of relief and dread, he opened the window and untied the note from the bird's leg, his hands shaking. The piece of parchment was disappointingly small, and he frowned as he read the brief message:

Dear Professor Snape,

Forgive me for not contacting you before now, but events have prevented me from doing so. I wanted to let you know that I have received your letter, and that I'm currently with Hermione, although I cannot say where.

I know this has probably done little to calm your fears, but rest assured that I will contact you as soon as both time and Hermione allow.

Best wishes,

Padma Thomas.

Severus read through the letter a second time, his alarm growing as he took in the line but events have prevented me from doing so. What was that supposed to mean? To what events could she possibly be referring? He was gripped by panic: he was suddenly certain that some dreadful calamity had befallen Hermione and that the location Padma could not mention was St. Mungo's. What if she was ill? What if she had had an accident of some sort? He Summoned his travelling cloak and left the kitchen, standing for a moment in the icy drizzle that was falling in the little back yard. He could hear the festive sound of Carol singers coming from Diagon Alley, and the optimism of the music made his terror seem all the more extreme by comparison.

He turned his face up towards the starless sky and closed his eyes, allowing the rain to fall against his skin. His heart rate slowed, and his breathing became less laboured. He was surely overreacting; if Hermione was unwell, Padma would have told him. On the verge of Apparating to the wizarding hospital, he suddenly rethought his plan and Apparated instead to Kensington Square. It was already half past seven: perhaps Lance had returned by now.

He turned into blackness and reappeared on the steps of Lance's house. He could see that the lamps had been lit in the old man's study on the first floor, and he uttered a sigh of relief. Here, at last, was someone in whom he could confide what had happened. Pressing the tip of his wand to the front door, he let himself in, calling for Lance as he shut the door behind him. Lance's reply came from upstairs, and Severus hurried to the study.

"You're early," Lance remarked, peering at him above his spectacles. "Is something the matter?"

"Where have you been?" Severus asked, taking the seat before Lance's desk.

"I was staying with friends in Cardiff," Lance said, a frown deepening the lines on his forehead. "I do hope you're going to tell me Cordelia has agreed to divorce you in February?"

Severus grimaced. How inconsequential his divorce now seemed compared to the fact that he could not find Hermione. "I'm happy to say your niece excelled herself. We divorced yesterday."

Lance gasped. "What? You've divorced already?"

Severus nodded.

Lance beamed. "I believe this calls for a celebration!"

Severus watched as he Conjured a pair of glasses and extracted a decanter of mead from beneath his desk. "What are you doing with a drinks cabinet under your desk?"

Lance chuckled. "I wasn't much of a drinker in my youth; I've decided the time has come to remedy that. Besides, I find both mead and elf-made wine have a beneficial effect on the arthritis."

Severus shook his head and accepted the glass of mead. "I think you might be a little hasty in your celebration, Lancelot."

Lance held up a hand. "Yes, I can tell by your face that all is not well, but for one moment, let us toast your successful escape from the Mill family. If only I could do the same!"

They raised their glasses, and Severus took a small sip of his drink, eager to move to more pressing matters.

"Now," Lance said with a sigh. "Tell me what's going on. Don't tell me the girl has refused to marry you?"

"When did you last see or speak to Hermione?" Severus asked.

Lance raised an eyebrow. "Sunday evening, shortly before I spoke to you and Cordelia."

Severus frowned. "You didn't see her later that evening?"

He shook his head. "I knocked on her bedroom door when I returned from your house, but no, I didn't see her or speak to her. I presumed she was asleep, and about an hour later I left for Wales." Lance glared at Severus across the desk. "What have you done?"

"It's not so much what I have done as what I have failed to do."

Lance tapped his crooked fingers impatiently on the desk. "Meaning?"

"Cordelia agreed to a divorce on Sunday night, and we spent hours going through my accounts before we reached a financial settlement. I had intended coming straight over here and telling Hermione of what had come to pass, but I decided instead to come to her the following afternoon, once I'd secured a divorce and was a free and single man. I sent her a note asking her not to worry, but I can see in hindsight that it was insufficient."

"Insufficient?" Lance asked in disbelief. "The girl was worried out of her mind about what was going on across the road, and you didn't even tell her that Cordelia had agreed to a divorce?"

Severus shook his head. "I told her not to worry, and I promised to explain the situation in full the next day."

"And how long did it take you to get here?"

Severus lowered his gaze, ashamed to admit the truth. "It took most of the morning to arrange the divorce, and one of the details to which I had agreed was that I would vacate Kensington Square immediately and that I would not live in this house, nor set up the laboratory here. Three individuals in Diagon Alley had suitable premises to let, so I travelled directly there and agreed to lease one of them."

Lance covered his face with his hands. "So, what time was it when you eventually arrived here?"

"Late evening; about seven o'clock. She has not been here since then."

"Good grief, man!" Lance exclaimed, lowering his hands. "You left her all that time without an explanation?"

"How was I to know she would disappear?" Severus spat. "Her trunk is gone and half her clothes are missing from the wardrobes."

"You hadn't even asked her to marry you, you fool! Did you tell her you loved her? Please tell me that she at least knows you love her?"

"She … She knows I love her ..."

"Did you spell it out for her, Severus?"

Severus frowned. "Well, I—"

"Did you actually say the words?"

"She asked me if I loved her, and I admitted that I did."

"So you have never, in fact, uttered the words I love you?"

Severus pressed his fingers to his temples. "Not in so many words, no."

Lance thumped the desk with his fist. "Severus Snape, you idiot! How can someone so intelligent be so utterly foolish?"

"It's not my fault that women set so much store by such things," he said, affronted.

Lance sighed. "Where have you looked for her?"

"I visited her parents' house last night: she has not been to see them for the past ten days. This morning I called on Harry Potter. She is not there, and his wife contacted both Ronald Weasley, and Draco Malfoy, neither of whom have seen her or heard from her since Sunday. I presume she is with her friend, Padma, but neither her parents nor her friends had Padma's address."

"Hmm ..." Lance murmured, fingering his beard. "I agree with you: she's probably with Padma."

"Have you any idea where Padma lives?"

Lance shook his head. "Have you tried to contact Hermione by owl?"

Severus nodded. "Every letter has gone unanswered, except for one I sent to Padma. I received a brief letter from her about twenty minutes ago, admitting she is with Hermione and assuring me she will make contact as soon as events allow."

"What events?" Lance asked with a frown.

"I don't know; I've no idea what is going on, Lance. At first, I thought Hermione was just angry with me, but now I suspect something more may be afoot."

Lance stroked his beard, his gaze fixed upon his glass of mead.

"I need to find her, Lance. I've called for Moe many times since yesterday, and she hasn't responded. It wouldn't be the first time Hermione has confided in her, and I suspect she may know what's happened."

The older man looked at him for a moment and then called, "Moe?"

The elf appeared immediately with an echoing crack. "Yes, Master Lancelot?" she asked, her protuberant eyes widening at the sight of Severus. She stared at him for a moment and then pursed her lips.

"I wonder if we might trouble you for some tea, Moe?" Lance asked gently.

The little elf gave him a brief nod and disappeared again.

"Well, she did look ruffled by your presence," Lance said. "She knows something."

"Ask her, Lance," Severus said, sitting forward. "I cannot rest until I find Hermione."

"It's not always that easy, Severus. She may be a free elf, but she has her loyalties, and fond as she is of you, I know she has a great sense of devotion to Hermione. If Hermione has forbidden Moe to tell us of her whereabouts, she will be unmovable to that end. Do not forget that she is still bound by the enchantments of her kind."

"I know, Lance, but you've known her almost all her life, and you alone can persuade her to tell us what she knows. It's my last hope. If I haven't heard from Hermione by ten o'clock tonight, I'll have no choice but to break into the Ministry of Magic and find out where Padma lives."

Lance regarded him for a moment. "I'll do my best, Severus."

Moe reappeared with a tea tray, determinedly not making eye contact with Severus as she Levitated the tray onto the desk.

Lance cleared his throat. "Where's Hermione, Moe?"

Moe looked at him, her eyes wide, and shook her head.

"Does that mean you don't know or has she asked you not to tell us?" he asked, his voice kind.

Moe shook head again and wrung her hands in her pink apron.

"I'll take that to mean she has asked you not to tell us, Moe, and we will respect that. Perhaps you might answer some other questions, if you can. When was Hermione last here?"

Moe looked at the floor. "She is going yesterday morning, because she is being upset." She looked up and narrowed her eyes at Severus. "Why was your things gone, Master Severus?"

Severus arched his eyebrows. "How did you know my things were gone, Moe?" There was a sinking feeling in his stomach as realisation hit him. "Did Hermione ask you to go across the road to find me?"

Moe nodded, her eyes still narrowed. "You was making her sad."

"Did you tell her that all my things were gone, Moe? Did you tell Hermione I'd left?"

"Yes," Moe said defiantly. "Your icky potions things, and your clothes, and all your books."

Severus gave a brief laugh of disbelief.

"Oh, dear," Lance said. "I can only imagine what must have been going through the girl's head."

"Where is she, Moe?" Severus asked desperately.

Moe lowered her gaze again and shook her head.

"Moe," Lance said quietly, smiling down at her. "I know you cannot tell us where she is, but perhaps you can help us, nonetheless. Has she been in only one place since she left here yesterday?"

Moe looked at him for a moment and then shook her head once more.

Lance's smile widened. "In that case, can you tell us where she was? Miss Hermione forbade you to tell us where she is, but not where she was."

Moe looked uncertainly from Lance to Severus, who was gazing expectantly at her. He dropped to his knees in front of her.

"Please, Moe. I need to know where Hermione was. All I want is to make her happy."

The elf regarded him for a few seconds, and then a big tear rolled down her ancient face. She wiped her eyes on her apron. "She was being at Miss Padma's house."

Severus exchanged a glance with Lancelot, his worry increasing at the sight of Moe's tears. Something was very wrong.

"And do you know where Padma's house is, Moe?" Lance asked.

Moe nodded. "They was calling me for help," she explained, wiping her face on her apron again.

Severus shot Lance another troubled look. "Can you bring me there, Moe?"

Moe turned to look at Lance, who nodded encouragingly. She turned back to face Severus. "Yes, Master Severus," she whispered.

"Good luck, Severus," Lance said. "Do not hide your feelings from Hermione, or the rest of the world, for that matter. You no longer have any need to do so."

Severus stood and gave him a nod before Moe reached up and placed her bony hand on his forearm and Apparated them both away with a click of her fingers.

ssSss

Opening his eyes, Severus glanced quickly around at his new surroundings. Moe had brought him to a small, neat housing estate, and they stood at the bottom of a garden path, which lead to the red front door of a semi-detached house.

He looked down at Moe. "This is where Padma lives?"

Moe nodded, her eyes still full of tears.

"And Hermione was here?"

Moe nodded again and wiped at her face with the back of her small, frail hand.

Severus lowered himself to one knee, so that his face was level with Moe's. "Thank you, Moe. I know this has been difficult for you, but you have my eternal gratitude. I am aware something has happened that has upset you, and I will do what I can to make sure that Miss Hermione is always safe and happy."

Moe looked intently at him, tears still trickling from her big eyes, and, after uttering a sob, she stepped back from him and Disapparated with a loud crack.

He rose to his feet, and only seconds after the house-elf had disappeared, another crack echoed through the stillness of the night. Padma Thomas had appeared before the door of her little house, a dark blue travelling cloak wrapped around her petite frame, the hood pulled up over her dark hair.

"Miss Patil?" Severus said urgently, hurrying up the short garden path.

She turned at the sound of his voice, her hand reaching instinctively beneath her cloak for her wand.

"I meant ... Mrs Thomas ... Forgive me," Severus said, giving her a moment to compose herself.

"Professor Snape!" she said, stowing her wand beneath her robes once more. "I'm sorry ... You startled me."

"I apologise," he whispered, standing before her. She had taken down her hood, and he could tell by the circles beneath her eyes that she was exhausted. "Is she here?"

Padma shook her head. "No. I was about to write to you." She looked up and down the short street. "Please, come in." She opened the door and beckoned for him to follow her inside.

As soon as she had closed the front door behind them, Dean emerged from the sitting room.

"Professor Snape!" he said, clearly surprised. After a slight hesitation, he offered his hand.

"Mr Thomas," Severus countered, shaking his hand awkwardly.

Dean's gaze turned to his wife. He laid his hand on her arm. "You okay?"

Padma nodded sadly. "I'm fine; just drained. Are the girls in bed?"

Dean nodded and looked from Padma to Severus. "I'll just go up and check on them," he said, clearly uncomfortable.

"We can talk in the kitchen," Padma said, leading the way to a door at the far end of the hallway.

His heart thumping in anticipation of what she might have to say, Severus followed her and took a seat at the kitchen table.

"Can I offer you some tea or coffee?" she asked, giving him a shy smile.

"No, thank you," he replied. "I just need to know where Hermione is."

Padma chewed nervously at a fingernail. "She asked me not to tell you until tomorrow morning: she wanted a few more hours to get her head around what's happened, but I'm not so sure that's a good idea. She's distressed: she's not thinking very clearly at the moment."

"What has happened?" he asked desperately. "Is it that she's upset that I failed to contact her for so long, or has something untoward occurred?"

Padma sighed. "I hope you'll forgive me for asking, Professor Snape, but why didn't you contact her? I don't mean to pry, but I need to know what's been going on before I decide what I should tell you."

Severus rubbed his brow, uncomfortable with having such a personal discussion with a woman he barely knew. But there were much more important things than his pride at stake. "She told you I had decided to approach my wife for a divorce on Sunday?"

Padma nodded.

"Our negotiations were rather complex and took up most of the day, but Cordelia eventually agreed to a divorce. I had expected her to agree to a date in February, but she consented to grant me a divorce the very next day. We divorced yesterday."

Padma gasped, and her hands flew to her face. "I joked about that very possibility; neither of us believed it could be true!"

Severus sighed. "Look, I know that Hermione's house-elf, Moe, discovered I'd removed all my belongings from the house and passed that information on to Hermione, and I know, in hindsight, thatI was very wrong to keep Hermione waiting for such a terribly long time, but I'd just secured what we had thought was almost impossible: I was to become a free man the very next day ... I also needed to acquire new premises immediately, so—"

"Why couldn't you just have stayed with Hermione?" Padma interrupted.

"That was one of the clauses in the divorce: Cordelia requested that I never inhabit the house across the road. It was imperative that I find somewhere to stay. I wanted to come to Hermione the following day with my divorce papers in hand—a free man."

Padma sighed. "Oh, what a horrible mess." She gazed at him across the table. "Hermione wasn't really thinking straight: she was tired, overwrought. She misread the situation, and she had a lot of things to think about." She got up and crossed to a pine sideboard. "Here," she said, handing him two folded lengths of parchment. "She never even had a chance to read these letters, in the end."

Severus took the letters from her. "What's going on? Where is she?"

Padma looked torn. "She made me promise not to tell you; not until tomorrow. But isn't it better to break that promise if I think it's for her own good?"

Severus's mouth had gone dry; he imagined all kinds of dreadful things that might have come to pass. "Please, Mrs Thomas. I need to know where she is."

"Do you love her?" Padma asked in a whisper, her eyes filled with tears.

Severus frowned. "I really don't think that—"

"I know it's none of my business," she said, interrupting him again, "but I cannot tell you where she is unless I'm sure."

He looked at her for a few seconds, and then he recalled Lance's words about no longer needing to hide his feelings from the world. "Yes, I love her. And once I find her, I have absolutely no intention of ever letting her out of my sight again."

Padma looked at him, her face stricken, and a large tear rolled down her cheek. "She's in St. Mungo's."

Severus rose rapidly, almost knocking over his chair, hardly able to believe that his instincts had been correct, that she had been there all along. "Is she ill? Is she in danger?"

Padma gave a small shake of her head. "She needs to tell you that herself; it's not my information to give. I know it's well past visiting hours, but you can get to her if you really want to. She was on an emergency ward on the fifth floor when I left, but they were organising to move her to a private room."

His heart hammering, Severus nodded. "I'll find her; I'll leave immediately. Thank you for your help."

He turned and threw open the door of the kitchen, but before he could leave the house, Padma followed him to the front door and called, "Severus?"

He stopped, surprised she had used his first name.

She placed her hand gently on his arm, and he realised, with a start, that she was crying freely now.

"I'm so very sorry," she whispered.

His sense of dread doubling at her words, he awkwardly patted her hand and stepped away from her.

"Be good to one another," Padma added as he stepped through the front door.

With a final glance at her unhappy face, he turned on the spot and Apparated back to London.

ssSss

Severus looked at the grubby shop front of Purge & Dowse Ltd. He had not been to this part of London since the day he'd been discharged from the wizarding hospital, but such was his anxiety that he did not even think of the months he'd spent recuperating inside these walls.

The streets had emptied of late-night shoppers, and Severus glanced left and right before whispering to the shabbily dressed dummy, "I'm here to find Hermione Granger."

After a second, the dummy gave a small nod and beckoned with its jointed finger. Casting a Disillusionment Charm on himself, he stepped through the glass and into the reception area of St. Mungo's. He knew that the charm would not make him completely invisible, but if he moved slowly and silently, he was more likely to blend into his surroundings. As visiting hours had finished, the rickety wooden chairs in the reception area were mostly unoccupied, and a young couple holding a blue-skinned toddler were gesticulating urgently to a Healer in lime-green robes a few feet in front of him.

He moved slowly towards the enquiries desk and stepped quietly around an old wizard whose arm was dangling uselessly by his side. Peeping over the edge of the desk, he squinted at the list of names on the Welcomewitch's clipboard, and, after a few moments, he spotted it: Hermione Granger ... Fifth Floor ... Gunhilda Youdle Ward ... Room 502.

Walking as silently as he could to the stairwell, he climbed to the next floor. When he'd passed the doors leading to the wards on the first floor, he quickened his pace, only slowing when he passed a green-clad Healer on their way downstairs.

He reached the fifth floor without meeting anybody else in the stairwell, relieved that the occupants of the portraits that lined the walls hadn't seemed to notice him. Pausing outside the double doors, he peered through the small round window set into one of them. A sign pointing left showed the way to the visitors' tearoom, while the one pointing right announced the Gunhilda Youdle Ward.

The corridor was quiet: there were one or two Healers moving from room to room, checking on their patients. Severus breathed a sigh of relief: he could see a room a little way down the ward with the number 502 engraved on a small plaque. The door was ajar, and no-one was around.

Pushing open the double doors, he stepped gingerly onto the polished tiles of the corridor, hoping that the squeak of his shoes on the linoleum would not give him away. He reached the door of her room within seconds and stopped outside: he could hear an unfamiliar voice coming from within. Inching forward, his heart thumping, his breathing shallow, he pushed the door open a little further so that he could step into the room.

He knew both joy and fear when he at last set eyes on Hermione. She was propped up in bed, her curls spread out against the stark white of the hospital pillows. His breath caught in his chest at the sight of her face, and he felt a throb of longing. Her skin was almost as ashen as the bed linen, and the dark hollows beneath her eyes told him that she had been through much since he'd last seen her. The cold sensation of fear intensified, and he suddenly dreaded finding out what ailed her.

He wanted nothing more than to rush forward and gather her in his arms, to press her to his chest, but a green-clad Healer was fussing around the bed, tucking the blankets neatly beneath the edges of the mattress. She was a middle-aged witch with a kindly expression.

"There you go, dear. You've got your jug of water beside your bed, and I'll leave you this Pain Potion in case you need it during the night. If you want me, all you have to do is wave your wand." She patted Hermione's had gently. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Hermione shook her head. "No, thank you," she said, her voice hoarse.

The Healer walked to the door, and Severus stepped a little further into the room to ensure she would not brush against him, his back pressed against the wall. The witch paused and turned back to face Hermione.

"I know how difficult it is for you to believe you'll get over this, my dear," she said sympathetically. "But you will get a little bit better every day. I know: It happened to me when I was about your age."

Hermione gave her a small, sad smile and nodded. "Thank you," she muttered.

The Healer returned her smile and stepped through the open door, closing it softly behind her.

Severus's gaze was fixed on Hermione, and as soon as the door closed, she uttered a tremulous sigh and closed her eyes. He continued to watch her for a moment, transfixed by her delicate, white face, a gut-wrenching ache in his chest. He watched until he had drank his fill of her, and then he took a deep, steadying breath, steeling himself and begging any deity that might be listening to let her be all right and to let her forgive him for the hurt he had caused her.

Stepping forward, he whispered, "Hermione?"

Her eyes flew open, and she sat upright in the bed, one hand pressed to her stomach, her eyes suddenly wide with alarm. She looked frantically around the room. "Severus?" she said.

He took his wand from beneath his robes and removed the Disillusionment Charm, his eyes never leaving her face.

She pressed her fingers to her mouth. "How ... How did you find me?"

He walked to the edge of her bed. "I've been searching for you since yesterday evening. I tried everyone I could think of: your parents; Harry and Ginny; Draco and Susan. Moe refused to tell me where you were, but I persuaded her to bring me to Padma's house, and Padma eventually told me you were here." He wanted so badly to gather her in his arms, but he was suddenly unsure of where he stood. "I was frantic with worry, Hermione," he continued, his voice constricted. "What has happened?" He took her hand in both of his. It was cold to the touch.

She swallowed hard. "Before I tell you," she began, her voice shaking, "I need to know what's been going on. Why didn't you contact me, Severus? I thought ... I thought you'd decided you didn't want a divorce after all. All your things were gone ... I ... I didn't know what to think."

He continued to hold her hand, encouraged that she did not withdraw from his grasp. "I'm truly sorry that I kept you waiting." Still holding her hand, he lowered himself onto the chair by the side of the bed. "Cordelia initially refused me a divorce, as we had expected her to do. We argued well into the evening, but Lancelot eventually interceded, and he persuaded her that a divorce was as vital to her own happiness as it was to ours. We debated a little further, and, much to my astonishment, she agreed to a divorce."

Hermione looked shocked. "She agreed? She actually signed an agreement?"

Severus gave her a small smile and reached beneath his robes. He extracted his divorce papers and laid them before her on the bed. "She did even better than that. See for yourself," he said, indicating the documents. "We divorced yesterday morning; I am a single man, Hermione."

With trembling fingers, Hermione picked up the papers, her expression one of shocked disbelief. "She's divorced you ... already? You're no longer married?"

He nodded.

Hermione frowned. "But why didn't you tell me? And why were all your things gone from the house?"

Severus sighed and shook his head. "That's where I was rather a fool, I'm afraid. I intended crossing the square and telling you that very night, but I revised that plan, deciding instead that I would surprise you by coming to you the following day with these divorce papers in my hand. A misguided shot at romanticism."

"I still don't understand why Moe found the house empty ... You'd even cleared out the laboratory. Why would you do that?"

"Cordelia agreed to a divorce, but there were a number of clauses to which I was bound, and one of them was that I would not, at any time, inhabit your and Lance's house, nor would I set up my business there. I cleared out my belongings, and after we'd finalised the divorce at the Ministry, I found suitable premises in Diagon Alley and moved all my trunks and boxes there. I know, Hermione, that I made an erroneous decision in that regard. I should have contacted you without further delay. It was unforgivable of me."

Hermione shook her head and pulled her hand from his grasp. She placed her head in her hands. "Oh, Severus. I'd imagined so many different scenarios in my head. I thought Cordelia had persuaded you to stay. That was unforgivable of me. I should never have doubted you."

She lowered her hands gain, and he frowned. He'd never seen her so pale and so drawn. He leaned forward, his elbows on the bed, his heart hammering against his ribs once more. "It matters little: I've found you and that's what's important. I need to know what's happened to you, Hermione. Are you ill?"

She stared at her hands, which were entwined in her lap. "On Sunday night … shortly before I got your note, I ... I found out ... Well, something I hadn't been expecting."

He reached out and placed a finger beneath her chin, gently lifting her face until she met his gaze. "You found out what? Are you unwell, Hermione?" He could feel her shaking. "What is it? Tell me."

"I ... I found out that ... that I was pregnant," she admitted, her voice quivering.

His mouth opened in shock. He had imagined a whole variety of dreadful illnesses over the preceding hours; he had thought about all the terrible accidents that might have befallen her. But not once had it occurred to him that she might have been pregnant. He stared at her, aware that she was hungrily examining his face.

"That's why I left, Severus. I didn't know what to do, what to think. I needed space."

"You're ... pregnant ..." he said, barely able to comprehend it.

She swallowed hard. "I was pregnant. I ..." she continued to look at him, a forlorn expression in her eyes. "I lost the baby, Severus. Our baby ..." her voice cracked, and she lowered her gaze to her stomach, where her hands now rested.

Feeling as though someone had emptied a bucket of ice-cold water over his head, he rose from his seat, hardly knowing what he was doing, what he was feeling. He walked to the little window behind the bed, leaned his hands on the window sill and stared at the damp, lamp-lit street below. His thoughts were in turmoil, the words our baby echoing around and around in his head. It was as though he was drowning: he felt he could not breathe, as if there was some sort of crushing weight on his chest.

"I didn't mean for it to happen," Hermione said from behind him. "I was careful ... I'm almost certain I never failed to perform a contraceptive spell. But I mustn't have been careful enough. I don't know how it happened ..."

Severus leaned his head against the cold glass of the window, trying in vain to steady his breathing, to quell the surge of emotions. The burning pain in his chest was almost more than he could bear, and he knew that there was guilt mixed in there along with shock, and he knew that if she had lost this baby because of the stress he had caused her, he would never forgive himself.

As if she had read his mind, she said, "The Healers said we shouldn't blame ourselves. I told them ... I said that the last few days had been stressful, tiring. But they said that the placenta was defective, that it was inevitable and nothing could have been done to prevent it ... They said it happens to so many women ..." she trailed off, her voice thick with emotion.

He closed his eyes, knowing that, despite her words, he was guilty. He had not been there in her hour of need; he had not been there to share in the tragedy that was equally his to endure. She had gone through this ordeal without him to hold her hand, to stroke her hair, and to tell her that everything would be okay.

"They said it was a boy," she added.

He felt like an arrow had pierced his heart. For a short time he had, unknowingly, been a father. For a few days, weeks, maybe, he'd had a son, and he hadn't even known.

He was gripped by a pain that almost brought him to his knees with its intensity. And as he tried to identify exactly what it was, he realised that he'd felt this way before, a long time ago, in Dumbledore's office. This crushing emotion was familiar: he had felt this way as he'd sat, doubled over, keening in misery on the night he had learned that Lily had died. This was grief. He didn't need Exostraserum to tell him that.

"I know you've never wanted children, Severus, and when I first found out I was pregnant I was so confused, so scared. But once I had gotten over the shock, I realised that this was a good thing. I wanted this, Severus. I wanted this baby so badly! There was a time when I was willing to sacrifice that just to be with you. But now, knowing what I've lost ... I don't know if that's something I can just sacrifice anymore ..."

He turned and looked at her, and he found the grief that was tearing at his chest reflected in her eyes.

"This has broken my heart," she said, her voice breaking once more. "I can't even cry anymore. I've cried so much today that I feel like I'll never cry again ... I just feel numb. I know you never wanted a child, but I do, and it's no longer something that I can deny. I feel so very empty."

He gazed at her, at her grief-stricken eyes, her forlorn expression, her clenched jaw, brave and determined despite the fact that she was trembling with sorrow and loss, and he knew that he loved her even more for her stubborn Gryffindor courage.

He walked from the window back to her bedside, feeling as though he was standing at the edge of a vast precipice. With sudden clarity, he understood that the next few moments were the most important of his life. He held the key to his and Hermione's happiness in his hands, and he felt as though the path before him was strewn with their hopes and dreams, and that he must tread carefully, choose his words with the utmost care. He would offer her his heart; never again would he hide anything from her.

"Say something, Severus," she whispered.

He took both her hands in his and pressed them for a moment to his lips, his eyes closed. Then he opened his eyes and gazed into hers.

"It's true: I've never wanted children; I've never had that desire. You know my upbringing made me determined never to inflict unhappiness on an innocent child, so no, I've never longed for a son or a daughter. Even as a married man, I had no wish to continue my line. But don't you understand, Hermione, that with you, the rulebook that has governed my life for so long goes out the window?"

She looked at him wide-eyed, confused. "What do you mean?"

"With you, Hermione, I want it all: the whole package."

She watched him in silence.

Severus took a deep breath, trying to ignore the agony that still had him in its clutches. "I know that nothing can ever replace the baby that you—we—have lost. But there is time ... There will be other children."

"Other children?" she asked.

He brushed a stray curl from her face and tucked it behind her ear. "You are young and healthy. We will have a family of our own."

"But … but you didn't want children ..."

"You're right ... I didn't," he said. "But with you, I do. Sometimes we don't realise what we want until it is gone. I want everything that I've never wanted before: I want to wake up beside you every morning and find you there when I reach for you; I want to have a house and a garden and an irritating cat; I want to watch you grow large with our children and bring them into the world; I want to help you raise them and wave them off on the Hogwarts Express; I want to grow old and grey with you at my side!"

Her bottom lip trembled. "But if you've never wanted that before, why now?"

He stroked her cheek with his thumb. "Because I love you, you silly girl. Don't you understand that I love you with all my heart and all my soul?"

She closed her eyes and leaned in to his touch. "Really?" she whispered.

"Really and truly," he said, his voice strained. "I love you."

He waited for her to open her eyes again, and when she did, he took her solemnly by the hands. "Marry me, Hermione Granger. Not because of the ridiculous Marriage Act, but because you love me as much as I love you. Marry me despite the Marriage Act, because that is truly what you want, and not because it is what you have to do."

She squeezed his hands, and her eyes filled with tears. He thought of the ring that was nestled within the velveteen box in his robes, but it suddenly seemed so unimportant, so surplus to requirements. She was all that mattered.

"You saved my life all those years ago in the Shrieking Shack, but you've saved me a second time this last year. I never want to be without you again, and we will get through this loss together."

He cupped her face with his hands and kissed her reverently on the forehead. "Marry me, Hermione; spend the rest of your life with me; raise a family with me; grow old with me."

She had thought there were no more tears left, but suddenly, there they were, streaming down her face. They were neither tears of joy nor sorrow, but rather a strange mixture of the two.

"Yes," she whispered.

"Yes?" he repeated, searching her face, his voice hoarse. "To which part?"

"To all of it," she said, reaching for him. "To every last little bit of it."

He clutched her to him as if he would never let her go again, and a moment later, they pressed their foreheads together in a gesture of unity, and Hermione was never sure, in the weeks, months and years that were to follow, which tears had belonged to whom.