I flee from your shadows,
If only they would believe me,
He peered into the coal black eyes of the small creature snuggled against his arm and for the first time in his life, was driven by a fierce need to protect rather than destroy.
He swallowed. A stream of warmth filled his heart as he stared at the baby.
He was so small, so tiny that he could fit into his palm with room to spare. His features were fit into the impossibly small face he possessed. The small tuft of raven hair that rested on his head was too less and for a moment he wondered if his son would ever have more hair. Would he be bald? But he was so small.
He counted the fingers and toes on the infant meticulously. Having satisfied himself, he went back to gazing into the baby's eyes. There could be no recognition at this stage, of course. But Severus scowled at the wrinkles on his forehead. Was it natural? And his hands and feet were too small. A sudden consternation gripped him.
"He's too small. Are you sure he's the… right size?" he whispered to the nurse maid, not taking his eyes off the small, white bundle she had placed in his arms a few minutes ago. Even to his own ears, he sounded ridiculous. Smith snorted. The nurse gave him a patronising smile. He frowned at his son's face, wondering whom he resembled. His eyes and hair were Severus's. But his features weren't. He couldn't discern any crook in his nose and his lips were… well, nonexistent. As Severus watched, the tiny alien opened its mouth and pouted, or so Severus thought. For without a moment's delay, a shrill cry emanated from its mouth which pierced Severus's eardrums. He drew back in surprise and looked at the nurse, troubled.
She hurried to his side and retrieved his five day old son from his arms and patted it a bit.
"He's hungry. He'll need to be fed," she said and nodded to the two men before exiting the room. Severus gazed at her retreating back with an open mouth before realising that Smith was… sniggering at him. He turned his eyes towards him shot him a glare.
"What?" he snapped.
Smith shrugged. "One would almost think you have never seen an infant before."
Severus scowled deeply. "I've seen them."
Just not my own, he added in his mind.
He had only just arrived. Five days. For five days he had been embroiled in a bloody war after a few contingents of the invading men from Grindelwald's beleaguered army had thrown caution to the wind and begun to engage in direct warfare. In the absence of their Captain, their organisation and perseverance was deplorable. Marcus had been able to rein in most of the groups of the opposition as had been planned earlier. But a few had rebelled and had been put down mercilessly. It had to be done.
People were beginning to return to their homes and only those remained behind whose presence was absolutely necessary. The surrendered forces were under Marcus's able command.
The former Minister had taken over the fledgling government once more. They were trying to get by with minimum governance for the time being. War had torn apart the economic and administrative fabric of the country.
He had only just disentangled himself from the fray and reached this house. Although still under the Fidelius charm, the house was no longer out of bounds to most of their compatriots.
"What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be the newly reinstated Head of the country? Don't you have work to do?" he said in annoyance and glared at the man before him. Smith simply gave him an amused smile.
"I still live here," he pointed out.
Severus sighed and looked away, rubbing his hands on his head.
"Besides," he said as he left his seat and came to sit near Severus, "I wished to speak to you."
Severus looked at him in question, vaguely aware of how the conversation would go. "You are no longer under the oath, Minister. You are at a liberty to throw me into Azkaban for my… war crimes."
Smith raised his eyebrows at him. "I am aware of that. But I do not forget what you have done for our world and its people. I have no desire to pursue the matter any further. No, it isn't what you have done that concerns me now. It is what you are going to do."
Severus closed his eyes. He drew in a deep breath and rested his head against the sofa.
"You haven't seen her in two weeks." Smith laid a hand on Severus's stooped shoulders. "You do realise that she is the mother of your son. You cannot run from…"
He left his words unfinished and Severus thought it was cruel.
He hadn't seen her since… that day.
He wasn't sure of how he could deal with the… situation.
But Smith was right too.
He had promised to treat her well. Pledged to himself. Regardless of her… actions.
But she had killed Riddle. For her, no their, son.
She did love their son.
"I don't know what to do," he answered honestly. Now that the war was over, he had to face the truth.
Could he reconcile himself once more with her… actions? He did not know. Forgiveness wasn't one of his best qualities. He could hold onto a grudge for a very long time. But it wasn't his or her fate alone that baffled him. He was also responsible for a tiny living being that breathed in the same world as him.
"Why do you find it so difficult to forgive her?"
Severus examined the ashtray that rested on the table before them. "I don't. It isn't about forgiveness. I don't know what this is about..."
"Do you know what you want to do now? You could work for the government, be a Deputy Minister…" Severus let out a harsh bark of laughter at the Minister's naïve words.
The scales of power had changed.
The Minister was in control now.
He shook his head at the offer.
"You need to see her,'' Smith entreated once more and Severus wondered what his intent was in pushing him. Philanthropic, perhaps.
He heaved a sigh and got up with a heavy heart, struggling within himself and wondering how on earth he was supposed to decide. It wasn't really his decision anymore. It wasn't.
It wasn't hers either. His hands clenched into a fist at the thought of her.
"Not yet, Smith. There are things…" he muttered as he sauntered out of the room, through the hallway and the front door and vanished into the night.
Hermione cradled the small baby in her arms, moving it in gentle, rhythmic motion to soothe him but to no avail. It wouldn't stop crying. She felt her heart twist at the pain the infant's loud cries engendered. She couldn't do anything to stop them.
"Is there nothing I can do?" she asked the nurse in a low voice, hoping against hope that she would have some remedy. They had fed him and changed him but it wasn't enough. It was as if…
She didn't know what to do.
There wasn't much she could do other than hold her son close to her chest and murmur comforting words into his ears.
"Lay him down beside you. Perhaps that would help,'' the nurse advised.
Hermione did as she was bidden and held the tiny being closer to her. She stroked his head in light, feathery movements and crooned to him.
It seemed to work. The baby's cries turned into broken sniffles and she could feel him calm down. She closed her eyes in relief. She was drained. She felt like she hadn't slept in a very long time.
It had been five days since her son had been born.
And more than two weeks since Tom had passed.
Her heart was weary and forlorn. It was drowned.
She had thought she would die of the pain. Back in labour, she really had thought she would. It was an excruciating experience. She really had had no hope of living. None at all.
She had wanted to die.
But she hadn't. She had managed to live through it.
The gruesome aspect of life was living it.
The baby stirred and her hand went to it again, instinctively holding it against her heart as she murmured a few more words into its ears. The nurse had left by now.
A small mewl erupted from her son's tiny mouth and she looked at him. He stared into her eyes for a second before they were scrunched up in pain and she felt her heart break.
"No, don't cry. Please…" She held him against her, feeling desperate, lonely and forsaken. "Shh…"
He was so restless all the time. There was this lingering feeling in her hear that it had something to do with Tom's magical forces that had invaded her womb. She felt lost. How could she do anything if he were right?
And still, the baby wouldn't stop crying.
In some ways, perhaps it cried away its mother's tears.
Tears of sorrow.
She had hoped to die but she hadn't…
And now, she thought as she caressed the few strands of hair on the baby's head, she couldn't.
She felt tormented. The thought of losing, no murdering someone you loved was enough to unhinge the best of minds. She did not feel like there was much of sanity left in her but she would take care of her son. He did not have to be condemned with her. He should not have to face the consequences of her actions. He was innocent. She'd try.
Even the deepest bruises tend to hurt less with time. They remain, their visible exterior serving as a sharp reminder to broken hearts but in some ways, one still lives. One is still alive.
If suddenly, you do not live,
My beloved, if suddenly you do not exist,
I shall go on living…
The baby had found the fabric of her cotton dress and was clinging onto it. The cloth was too large for his tiny fist and Hermione found herself smile a little.
His breath drew in hitches now and Hermione wondered if he were exhausted. She turned him over, keeping a firm grip on his head and placed him on the bed beside her. He was beginning to quieten now. She felt a small tear escape her eyelids. She wouldn't let him be a prey to the world. No. Regardless of what happened to her next, she wouldn't let him be alone.
Even if her own twisted heart lived in the shadows of a time gone by.
Severus halted as soon as he saw her. It was three days since he had first set eyes on his son. He had refrained from returning till now. He had delayed, dawdled, convincing himself that there was no hurry. He had to speak with her, of course. There was no alternative to it. But it was a task that would prove most trying for both of them. He had entered her room without knocking and was taken aback to find her engaged otherwise.
Her eyes registered him in surprised melancholy and she covered her own state of undress hastily, shielding the suckling babe from his eyes in the process.
Neither of them moved for a few moments.
"It seems that we have run out of time," he said as he drew up a chair and sat at a distance from her. She did not meet his eyes and stayed silent, concentrating somewhere far off.
He coughed to gain her attention.
She looked up at him, her hooded brows questioning his presence in their midst. He, too, questioned his own presence. What was he doing here?
She looked too frail and almost… dead. But there was something else in her eyes. She looked as if she had aged a few years in a short span of days. There were more dark circles under her eyes than he had ever seen them but he brushed the tiny concern away. It wasn't his place to contemplate those things yet.
"I know why you've come," she said when he did not speak for a long time.
He scrutinised her tired face intently and sighed after a while. "It isn't one of our decisions to make anymore."
She gave him a small nod and shifted under the covers, patting the small bulge under them carefully in a comforting gesture. Severus found his speech receding.
It was too much altogether.
"I wish to support and raise our son, regardless of our… past…" he spoke carefully, stretching and chewing the words that sounded wrong on his tongue. It wasn't too difficult though. She didn't scream or shout at his declaration. She simply looked down and nodded.
"It's for the best, I suppose," she said, not meeting his eyes still.
He felt horrible. Everything around him, including himself, was stained. Even now, after all their misfortunes had melted, everything was out of rhythm. The entire world sounded like an odd instrument crafted out of crass wood and metal. Nothing was tuned. There was no symphony.
"Very well." He could think of no other words. What good were words?
"He loved me, you know," she muttered, drawing the sheets closer around herself. "I would never have been able to… I could never have got away otherwise."
Severus felt a strange constriction in his own heart. Perhaps what she had uttered was true.
If he had thought their situation couldn't get worse, he was wrong.
It was dreary toil to look at her, to trail his gaze down to the small bulge under the sheets and not be able to see him. It was as if everything he had wanted waited right there, around the corner, hidden behind a dark veil and he would only need to cross it in order to unite with it. But the crossing was too hard.
And the veil impenetrable.
"May I see him?" His voice was hoarse with thick emotion. He had to leave for a job in two days and would most probably not return till the end of the month. She looked back at him, surprised at his demand perhaps. In the end, she gave him a tiny nod and manoeuvred something underneath.
He reached out for his son tentatively, making sure that she wouldn't see the slight shake of his hands. He had held him before. It hadn't been like this. He hadn't been nervous then. Why now?
The baby let out a small growl of displeasure at being handed over. Severus almost chuckled. Almost. He kept staring at him for the longest amount of time, wondering if he'd be up to it. Wondering if he would ever turn out like his own… father. No. Not him.
Severus was startled at her words. His own coal black eyes travelled to her face and he felt his lips purse…
"Not for what I felt… feel.. but for endangering the life of my son through my heedless actions,'' she clarified when he did not respond. Her eyes were a lacklustre brown. "It… I wish it hadn't been like this."
Severus stiffened as he felt something clench within his own heart. He nodded at her, keeping his own face blank and handed back the tiny creature to her. He drew up, his eyes sliding from her face to their son's.
"We cannot turn back time. Not anymore." His response was as hollow and painful as her apology. But it would have to make do.
'It was big. Far too big. Hermione couldn't live in a world so huge. It would tear her apart, rip her to pieces and she wouldn't be able to take care of her son anymore. It wasn't working. It was too large.
Her lover's face loomed across the glade and into the dark, widening skies and she wondered how she could escape this peril. She had to do something.
It wasn't working anymore.'
She woke up with a start and her hand went to the cradle resting beside her bed. It wasn't real. It was just a dream.
She threw her head back into the pillow and closed her eyes.
Just a dream.
Real, but just a dream.
She stood outside the door, listening intently to the muffled sounds that issued from the four walled space. She had only just finished her bath and had hurriedly run across the hallway to the nursery, only to find that her son wasn't in his crib. She had panicked for a moment. But then she realised, her husband was home too.
He liked to spend time with their son. He had probably taken him.
From the narrow opening, she could see him seated by the fireplace. The little creature rested snugly against his chest, dozing off quietly in the silence broken by the crackling fire in the fireplace. There was an expression of hitherto unknown peace on Severus's face. A reluctant smile crossed her lips and she felt like it must have been a long time since she had managed to smile by herself. The corners of her mouth ached.
She withdrew, not wanting to disturb the quiet moment of content and went back to her room. She seated herself in the bay window, looking out at the desolate scenery that surrounded them. It was raining heavily.
It had been two months since her son was born.
A little over two and a half months since he had… died.
A little over a month since they had shifted to this secluded house, sitting in the lap of bountiful mother nature. It was a gift accorded to her husband by the reinstated Minister. She didn't care much that there was no company unless one travelled over a mile to the nearby village. She didn't care that was no usual hustle and bustle she had grown used to. It was difficult to come to terms with not living in the shadow of a war anymore.
She loved her son dearly. He had kept her alive and fighting in the worst moments of her life and she was deeply indebted. He occupied most of her time during the day and the night. She was glad for the distraction. It didn't matter that her days were mostly filled with non-productive work for now. She'd find something to do in time. In time.
And Tom… He was a festering, lingering wound in her heart that wouldn't heal. She always shuddered when she peered into the mirror before her. Her hands were red with his blood and she would never forget that. It didn't matter that her love was wrong and twisted. It didn't matter that things were stagnant in her life and she would probably never heal completely from the storm that had overtaken much of her life. His memories stayed persistently, looking at her accusingly whenever she gazed at the sleeping form of her son.
It wasn't fair but it was the deal she had got.
She had taken it.
"What are you doing out here?"
He stared at the woman who stood out in the dark night. It was raining heavily, the splatter of fast falling drops creating a desolate sound in their midst. She was standing atop a few stairs that led to the garden. She seemed not to hear him so he enquired again, wondering what was wrong with her.
She turned around this time, drenched from head to toe and looked at him, confused.
She shook her head and gazed over his shoulder at something. He craned his neck to look at it but there was nothing.
"You need to get inside. It's cold." He pushed forward and held out a hand to her, beckoning her out of the rain. She hesitated for a second but gave in. He could almost trace the wrinkles on her hand that excessive water had caused to emerge.
The water gathered around their feet splashed as he followed her into the house.
Once inside, he lit the fire in the sitting room and retrieved a few towels from her room. She took them absently, staring into the burning inferno. Her eyes were glassy. He dried the water on his clothes and sat down in the armchair.
He stared at her face.
It had been a year since the war had ended. They had settled into a quiet routine of non-interference.
Everything had changed in the one year and yet so many things had remained the same. She was still broken. Less so now than before but he could sense the restrained melancholy in her bearing every now and then when she thought no one was looking. He had resented her preoccupation with things in the beginning but had kept his mouth shut. People had to deal with their demons in the best way they could. It was the only way.
He was learning to forget too.
The cruelty of war always raged mercilessly in his dreams and he usually found it more than difficult to keep hold on himself. He'd wake up at nights, haunted by things as he sought to reconcile himself with the present but it was difficult. He was only human, after all. But the presence of his son helped. He would never admit it, not even under pain of death, but he was secretly proud of the little one year old dozing heavily in the nursery right now. He had learned how to walk and was able to speak as well. He kept quiet though, most of the times, and Severus wondered why that was. As far as he knew, children never really stopped talking. Besides, the incessant prattle about seemingly inane things would have annoyed Severus. Perhaps he should be glad that his son wasn't foolish. But his quiet, dark eyes that watched everything sometimes piqued Severus's curiosity. He had never tried to intrude into his son's mind but maybe someday he would. For now though, he was fine. He was only just about a year old after all.
Severus's own life was quiet and mellow, in direct opposition to the past. There was a large basement under the house where he had accumulated just enough to set up an advanced Potions laboratory. He worked there for the most part of the day, mixing, creating, researching… to keep his mind off things. Shadows abounded all round him in clusters of dark but he kept them under control. He worked in the garden on weekdays, growing various herbs and the like. Most of the ingredients he needed for his Potions were grown there. Even Hermione ventured there at least two to three times a week and lent him a hand. As before, they did not speak much but it wasn't like there was anything substantial to say.
All in all, things were changing and yet everything remained the same.
"Is that right?" His son peered shyly into Severus's eyes and thrust a piece of paper towards him. He was trying to mimic Severus's loopy script from one of his books. Severus looked over the paper and his lips quirked upwards. He had tried, and succeeded, in creating an 'A'.
He nodded to the two and a half year old boy seated on a high chair at the dining table and went back to his reading. He could hear… her shuffling about in the kitchen, preparing something.
"Can I sleep wit you, papa?" he asked Severus after some more time. Severus's gaze travelled to the boy's face once more. It looked troubled. His concern was roused as he wondered what the matter was. He put a leaf between the open pages of his book and slipped it over the surface, away from himself.
"Why?" He intertwined the fingers of his one hand in the other and turned a questioning look toward the small child.
"I had a bad dream." The boy twisted and squirmed under Severus's intent gaze. Severus frowned.
"It's natural." He ruffled the child's curly black hair and drew him into his lap. "Nothing to be scared of." The boy nodded noncommittally.
Things were different but they still stayed the same. His relationship with his wife was no more strained but it was a quiet company they shared. They had almost no visitors. Almost. The Minister dropped in at times and Marcus made it a habit to seek Severus's advice on his own department's affairs from time to time. Lucia Weasley had dropped in to see Hermione a few times but that was the extent of their social life. It was better this way. Neither of them had much appetite for company or people anymore.
"No. That's not how you do it," Hermione said as she tugged the tiny spade away from her son's hand. "Let it go, honey. You will hurt yourself."
Finally. She managed to pry it away from her son's tightly closed fist. The small child pouted and stood up, turning his back to Hermione. A smile crept upon Hermione's lips as she put away the toy and stooped down to pick up the three year old.
"You never let me." The boy had almond shaped tears in his dark eyes and Hermione felt torn at the insinuation, childish as it was, that she never let him do anything. "Papa lets me. I want to go to him."
He wriggled in her arms and tried to hop down but she held on.
"I'll take you. Stay still, now," she admonished and was immediately graced with a petulant frown. She wiped the soil smears spread across his cheeks with her hands. "You shouldn't be out there alone. Lots of plants are quite dangerous in there, you know."
At this, her son's tiny shoulders seemed to stoop. "I know."
"Well, never mind." She ruffled his hair to lighten the mood and walked out of the small gate that led to the back door of their house. The fact was that she was troubled. Tom's words reverberated in her mind every time she looked at her son. There was this sad, almost despairing quality about his existence. She tried her best to not let it show, to do away with it by keeping the mood light and conversations merry but to no avail. It simply didn't work. To cap it all, he had nightmares daily. At first she had hoped that they would go away. But they hadn't. He slept with her and Severus on alternate days in their separate bedrooms. They made sure that he didn't sleep alone. Her husband, too, was troubled about their son. They had decided to enrol him in kindergarten. Perhaps the company of other children around would help.
It would be fine. There had to be a way.
She set him down in the sitting room, in a chair his own size, and walked to the back once more. The stairway to the basement lay there.
She knocked tentatively on the door. The basement was one of the coldest places in the house and she always shivered down here. At his affirmative declaration, she pushed the door open and entered. Severus was bent over a small silver cauldron and looked up at her in question.
She gave him a small smile.
"Would you take him out with you when you go to the village today? He's more restless than usual," she said and looked at him in expectation. She wasn't afraid of him anymore. He nodded at her and went back to his brewing.
"Do you need any help?" she questioned him once more as she tapped her fingers on the counter.
"No, it's fine," he replied. "I'll be upstairs in a few minutes."
She nodded absently and, seeing no further conversation forthcoming, left the laboratory.
She was writing a book. It was an easier job that allowed her to remain with her young child She still remembered Tom. She had loved him dearly. He had too, in his own twisted, convoluted way and regardless of how she looked at it, he had cared for her. But she did not regret her choice. She did not regret that she had chosen her son.
His face was fading fast from her memory but he remained.
Everything had changed for her and yet, in some ways, nothing had.
She loved her son. There could be no choice about that. Her husband… she was learning to come to terms with him. It wasn't ideal or a fairytale life but it was peaceful enough.
Severus tucked his son's tiny hand in his as he made his way into the shop. It was nearing Christmas. He had no patience or inclination for holding such festivities but Hermione had insisted that their son be allowed to partake of the jovial celebrations in the village. He had ventured out here to buy… presents.
"Can I take this?'' The raven haired four year old boy showed him a strange entrapment, meant to be placed on body parts to make them appear… large.
"What would you do with it?" he asked absently, his eyes raking over the numerous shelves that graced the eccentric shop. He had no intention of buying the silly thing and thought it wiser to engage his son's attention in a reasoned denial than outright forbidding. It worked better, in any case.
"It looks nice. It makes my eyes as big as yours." He held the crystalline object on front of his eyes and they doubled their original size.
"No, I'd rather you bought something useful. Like…" He ran his spindly fingers over the spines of a few books and selected one, "this one. It'll help you with our lessons."
"I can't give myself a Christmas gift. That one was for Mama." He crossed his small arms over his chest and Severus chuckled privately.
He just shrugged his shoulders and looked away. Severus sighed and picked up the crystal entrapment, wondering why on earth he could not bring himself to deny the small boy. He slipped the book and the object over the counter when a golden something caught his eye. It was a sapphire necklace. Something about it drew Severus instantly and he knew he had found a gift for… her.
"Could I see that?" He motioned towards the piece of jewellery which the shopkeeper passed to him. It was a pretty thing. He turned the golden chain over in his thin fingers and held it in front of his son's eyes.
"Do you think your mother would like this?" The little four year old boy's eyes travelled over the shiny object and he frowned. A strange, faraway look appeared in his eyes and he nodded mutely.
"Yeah. I think she would," he murmured quietly and caught Severus's hand, gently prying his fingers open to bask in their warmth. Severus wondered what it was that troubled him but put that thought away for later contemplation and slipped the necklace over the counter as well.
He gathered the presents and tucked them inside his robes before picking up his tiny lookalike and walked out of the shop. It was beginning to snow and his footsteps made heavy imprints in the ground.
She was waiting for them to return. They had been gone for over an hour now. It shouldn't have taken so long, she thought as she arranged the gifts under the Christmas tree. She had bought her son a small toy broom, a new colouring kit and lots of elementary books. And for him… her husband, she had bought a thickly bound book on rare potions. And a simple brooch for Ministry functions.
She placed a few baubles on the edges. It had been so long. She was learning little things, wonderful things about the man who lived with her and there was hope. With unspoken words, he managed to convey the silent devotion he held for their son. It was difficult to gloss over the details. It didn't have to be love. Love wasn't necessary.
She was learning about him every day, things that no one could have known or seen. It wasn't easy to look for them. He hid them carefully, not willing to let them peep out but she had a keen eye for details.
She brushed her fingers on the rough branches of the tree and closed her eyes.
Was this existence?
They hadn't really celebrated Christmas in over four years. She hadn't either. At least not since…
She swallowed. A sharp gust of wind whipped in her face and head turned towards the open window. She was sure she had closed it. She frowned.
She struggled with the latch. It wouldn't budge from its place. What was wrong with it?
"Mama!" She heard her son call out from the front door. He sounded happy. She smiled to herself and pulled at the latch once more, bringing the glass window to a rest. The strong rumble of wind and snow stopped. She was about to turn and leave for the front door when she noticed it.
A small piece of parchment was stuck to the glass.
She tilted her head, frowning as she reached out her hand and retrieved it. A faint whisper echoed in her mind as she read the words engraved on paper.
Forever lies in you.
The end is unknown.
Well, this is it then. It was disheartening to see that many people hated Hermione in this story. I reiterate that it is her actions that show who she truly is, far more than her words or emotions. But, never mind.
I have to thank everyone for the support, be it good or bad. The story has ended as I had always wanted it to. A few plot points changed along the way, of course.
It is saddening to see how many people wanted her to die. Pity. I had never intended for her to die but a few of the readers' opinions had swayed me a bit. Just for a moment though.
Also horrible to know how some of you hated my writing. I would have stopped but then I figured that as long as there was even a single person who wanted to read what I had written and liked it, I'd continue.