Chapter 31: The final chapter and its epilogue
A/N 1: This chapter is lemony…
His eyes snapped open the moment he heard the door lock snick.
Severus was instantly alert, adrenaline pumping, heart racing.
He could feel Hermione lying behind him, pressed against his back, her legs tucked behind his, her face buried in the space between his shoulders, the warmth of her breath on his skin. She was hidden from obvious view from the door by his body. He moved his right hand fleetingly back to her hip, touching its curve under his palm through the light blanket for a moment. She seemed to still instantly under his touch in her sleep.
He turned his full attention back to the door, watching it warily as it slowly cracked open, admitting a single figure backlit by light from the corridor beyond. Severus' wand slapped securely into his outstretched palm. Who the hell was it? The Auror Department? A wronged Weasley? The ghost of Voldemort? Her mother? His stomach clenched.
"Hello, Severus." It was Poppy's voice, calm and low. Relief washed through him. It was Poppy on her nightly rounds.
He told himself to settle down, but his heart still thumped loudly in his ears. It's Poppy, he thought firmly. Who else would it be in the middle of the night, dullard?
The Matron walked quickly and quietly into the room, shutting the door behind her and raising a small glowing lantern in her hand to light her way. At the sight of her, Severus was reminded absurdly of the Florence Nightingale stories his mother had read to him as a child. He watched her, unmoving as she approached him, painfully conscious and, at the same time, fiercely protective of the sleeping woman behind his back hidden by his body and the blankets that covered them both.
Poppy summoned the potions one at a time from the trolley at the end of the room, critically noting the level of contents in each bottle by holding them to the light in her other hand, then placing them on his bedside table. She spared a glance at him, flicking her eyes quickly over the wand in his hand and the expression on his face. "No need to be so concerned, Severus," she whispered in a low voice. "It's time for another round of your medications, my boy… And no one will get by my infirmary wards this time."
She placed the lamp carefully on the bedside table, settled into the wing-backed chair with a rustle of fabric and held out the first measure to him. Feeling a blush steal onto his cheeks at his defensive reaction towards her, Severus laid his wand down on the sheet before him and took the small bottle from her fingers. He tipped its contents into his mouth and returned the phial. Another potion followed… and another until all the concoctions had been drunk. With every bottle exchanged and its contents swallowed, Severus could feel her eyes upon him, her look calculating and evaluative. He prayed that Hermione would remain quiet and still behind him, obscured by his sharp shoulders and thin frame.
"How are you feeling now?" Poppy asked eventually once Severus had downed the remains of the final dose. There was something in her voice that he could not quite identify. Was it… teasing? Severus watched the dance of light from the little lantern play across her features and illuminate the worn patterns in her skin. He had spent more time in the castle with this one person than any other, he realised, both as a child and an adult. Aside from Albus, Poppy had been the closest thing to a friend in this place that he could remember.
He needed to answer her, but he suddenly felt completely tongue-tied. What did Poppy mean? He felt Hermione move slightly behind him and thought suddenly of her insanely curly hair, frizzy and untamed, fanning out on the pillow. Poppy must have seen it – seen her behind him in his bed. He narrowed his eyes.
"Like I never want to taste aniseed again?" he sniped snappishly, waiting for the inevitable scolding for his actions. Well, no matter what she has to say, the churlish thought presented itself in his mind, I'm not about to let Hermione leave. He could feel the reassuring weight of her against his back, remembered the snuffling noises that she made in her sleep as she had snuggled closer to him. She was sleeping soundly, and he was not going to let anyone disturb her. Other thoughts began to race through his head. And what was there to apologise for, anyway? It might look as if… as if… But we have not… Not that he hadn't wanted to, of course; oh god, he had wanted to… But why should we be judged, and what right does—?
With an effort, he brought himself under control. His emotions were all over the fucking place. Poppy might not have seen anything. Fuck it. He was going to brazen this out. He felt his chest puff outwards and his shoulders stiffen.
After all, his wand was only inches from his grasp.
Poppy's warm, dry chuckle at once reassured and embarrassed him. "Oh, unruffle your feathers, Severus." The hint of irascibility in her voice reassured him further. "I have already explained to Hermione's family that she is perfectly safe and well with you and that you are both not to be disturbed at least until you are ready to receive… other visitors." Poppy steepled her hands under her nose and raised her eyebrows. "Now, answer the question please, or I will have to wake her up and ask her opinion."
She needed her sleep, and he could not bear the thought of disturbing her. "No need," he bit out quickly in a whisper. "I am… much improved." And then, because he meant it about many things, he said, "Thank you, Poppy."
The Matron huffed an acknowledgement, but her mouth curved into a smile as she raised her wand in a flourish, casting the same diagnostic spell over him that Severus recognised from the previous day. She read the numbers shimmering above him with a practiced eye and nodded. After a considered pause, she recast the spell again, and Severus knew that the new set of numbers and sigils that spun and twisted in the air above their bodies must relate to Hermione. He stared at them, trying to make sense of them, wishing that he had spent more time researching diagnostic charms.
Evidently, Poppy was happy as she dismissed the runes with a satisfied flick of her wand and smiled. "All back in the 'normal' range... for both of you," she pronounced with approval evident in her voice. He relaxed a little at her words, but then he saw that Poppy was still looking at him intently. She was sitting poised on the lip of the chair's cushion, her hands folded primly in her lap as she stared at him, her eyes as bright as a bird's in the reflected lamplight.
Severus blinked. She was trying to tell him something.
"Weasley?" He hated the rasping sound of his voice.
"Ronald has departed the castle," Poppy informed him promptly. "He has agreed to return to his Quidditch career once Hermione's mother… explained a few things to him quietly."
Severus failed to suppress a sneer at his rival's loss… But then he saw that Poppy was still looking at him intently. Wrong question, dunderhead. He frowned. "The Aurors?"
Poppy blew out her cheeks. "Harry and Filius have spoken to the Auror Office. Neither Hermione nor her parents wish to press any charges against you. As for your activities after the Dark Lord rose again..." Poppy's look had become a little haughty. "You were exonerated of all wrongdoings after Voldemort's demise, Severus, largely in part thanks to the testimony of Mr Weasley." There was a mild rebuke in her response.
Behind him, Hermione let out a small snorting noise in her sleep, and he felt her nestle closer into his shoulder blades. Severus stared back at Poppy, one eyebrow raised, thinking, Mine.
"The Ministry does want to speak to you, however," she added with that earlier teasing note back in her voice.
Severus's upper lip curled, and Poppy leaned forwards, her eyes dancing. "My boy, there is talk of a re-presentation of your Order of Merlin, and the Prophet is anxious for an exclusive," she whispered with evident enjoyment.
Severus reared back slightly in horror. He could feel his heart begin to beat harder in his chest. He could imagine the media circus. He had been dead for eleven years. He had no intention of becoming… a celebrity.
"They will be here in the morning. Filius has invited them for tea at eleven," Poppy continued blandly, seemingly ignorant of the horror her patient was experiencing at her words.
Severus set his jaw. There was no way in the seven hells of Samhain that he was going to—wait, idiot! What was Poppy saying now?
"... And so, I imagine that you will have a few things to plan?"
He nodded dumbly, thinking, I am not speaking to the bloody, sodding Ministry...
"Well, then." Poppy smiled, her features softening. "I prescribe rest, good food, and warm weather for the rest of your rehabilitation." She paused, and Severus was astonished to see the normally reserved Mediwitch waggle her eyebrows at him. "And the exercises on that sheet of parchment, of course…."
He knew that his jaw had dropped slightly at that comment because she laughed at him. Poppy reached forwards as she pushed herself to her feet and squeezed his shoulder gently as a farewell.
As he settled back into the pillow, his mind still racing with thoughts about how he was going to avoid the Ministry minions in the morning, he felt a small hand snake its way around his ribcage and an insistent leg insinuate itself between his knees.
"Has she gone?" Hermione's quiet, sleep-roughened voice ticked his ear. She kissed its shell delicately and he shivered.
He smiled in the darkness. "Were you awake for all of that?"
"And you're recovered? No more potions?"
She wriggled against him, and her finger began to trace a circlet lightly and maddeningly around his nipple.
He caught her fingers in his hand and deliberately bit one of them at the tip, soothing the mark immediately with a rasp of his tongue and grinning as she moaned and writhed against him again.
Not to be outdone, Hermione kissed his neck and began lipping and biting a slow line down his nape and along his right shoulder. She did not seem to mind his scars or his wasted form. He closed his eyes at the pleasure of her gentle lips on his body.
Her lips moved against him, and he knew that she had summoned his wand into her hand. A quick flicking motion of her wrist, and his rough woollen trousers and underclothes vanished along with her nightshirt. He gasped at the heat of her naked flesh against his.
The discarded wand clattered unceremoniously to the floor.
"You need to do your exercises," she whispered, nipping the pale skin of his shoulder blade and trailing her hand slowly over his chest then lower across his shivering belly, tracing patterns through the fine hairs that covered his skin. Severus shuddered again at her actions, feeling a hot flush of desire begin to burn through him. He could feel himself hardening so rapidly he felt lightheaded.
"Build up your flexibility," kiss, "and resilience," another kiss, "and stamina..." Bite.
Her hand stroked the inside of his hip, around his groin, through the curly hairs around his straining erection, teasing, tantalising...
He felt her smile against his skin, and then – oh god, god, yes! – her small, hot hand closed slowly about his cock and squeezed it gently. Severus' hips began to make small involuntary motions beneath her hand. He closed his eyes, riding the overwhelming wave of pleasure that her fingers were bringing to him.
He moaned as he began to feel a delicious tension building in the base of his spine when she dragged her fingers again up his length, and he realised that he needed to move quickly if he wasn't going to embarrass himself.
Hermione squealed breathlessly as she found herself suddenly thrown backwards against her pillow, and then she giggled as she felt Severus spin around in one fluid movement, rising up on trembling arms above her, heat radiating off him in pulses.
"You know… I can think of a far more pleasurable way for us to improve our fitness," Severus murmured softly, the hint of a question in the rusted silk of his voice.
She wished that she could see him, but his face was in deep shadow – what ambient light there was in the room from the moon and stars was insufficient to see properly by. But then she remembered the last time they had made love in the darkness and realised that she didn't need to see him at all.
His breath was coming in heavier rasps above her, and she wondered whether he was waiting for her to do something, so she ran her hands up his sides, feeling his flanks shiver under her touch and his back twist and arch responsively. "Oh, please, yes," she whispered, reaching up for his head and pulling him firmly down to kiss her.
"Hermione," he groaned around her lips, and she felt his hands in her hair and the hard length of his body against her own, his hips bucking slightly as he lay over her. She could feel the blunt end of his cock stabbing into her thigh as she kissed him again.
Not waiting for me – trying to control himself, she thought with a delicious shiver of anticipation.
He pulled away from her kiss and dragged his lips along her jaw and down her throat, muttering something that she couldn't catch but she didn't need to because her higher brain functions were shutting down and he was now suckling on her left nipple and she didn't know that her nipple was that sensitive and connected to all the other erogenous zones in her body and now he was rubbing his stubbled cheek along her belly and she was rising up against him and he was growling, "Stay still, woman, or—" and pushing her back again and his hand was slipping on her sweat-slicked chest and then he was holding her thighs with his hands and his tongue was licking and swirling and pushing and Oh, good god, was that his teeth? and she was spinning and crying and shouting and screaming and fisting both hands in his oily hair, feeling the blades of it slipping through her fingers as he moved again and again against her sweet spot with his fabulous, talented, magnificent, incredible, astonishing—
And then he was on her, catching her quickly in a thorough kiss that tasted of salt and musk, want and need. She still had her fingers fisted tightly in his hair, and she could feel how badly he was trembling as he tried to move slowly into position between her legs, the heat of his cock and heavy balls sliding deliciously over her thigh as he carefully manoeuvred himself into position. She shifted her hips and wiggled underneath him until he was cradled between her thighs, feeling the blunt weeping head of his prick poking at her folds, seeking its place. It knocked roughly against her sensitised clitoris, and they both cried out, Hermione throwing her head back, exposing her throat to his teeth.
"Oh god, I love this, I love you," she babbled, clawing her fingers hard into the spare flesh of his shoulders.
"Yes, I… both," he moaned back, and she could feel him fumbling with shaking hands at her entrance as he tried to position himself more effectively. Then, with a whoosh of air and a strangled cry, he thrust forwards into her body, burying himself deep, deep within her, his sharp hips gouging into the soft flesh of her inner thighs.
His head dropped on her shoulder, and his back arched again under her hands. For a moment, he went completely still, and then he kissed her sweaty neck at its juncture with her collarbone and began to move.
Hermione twisted and bucked under him, her muscles fluttering and squeezing around him as she tried to accommodate her body to his rhythm, causing exquisite sensations to fire through his belly, up his spine and into his balls, and he knew that he would not… could not... did not stand a chance of… oh, oh…
He pushed himself higher on his hands, his hips jerking forwards and backwards with a desperate instinct as he tried to keep gasping enough air into his lungs to stay conscious while his senses were assaulted on all sides by the unbearable pleasure of fucking her.
This was better than he remembered. In his dreams, he had been out of his mind with grief and fear, lust and sorrow, and it hadn't been real anyway, and this was better, so much better than he remembered—
He wanted to kiss her again, to feel her tongue duelling and caressing his, to bite and snap and nip and pinch, but he could not bear to stop moving, shaking, pulsing, pushing – the sensations from the tip of his cock intensifying with every rub against her yielding flesh.
He could feel her fingernails scratch across his chest as he laboured above her, catching his nipple – oh, fuck! – and then scraping slowly up and down his thin belly skin – ahh, god! – before digging into the flesh around his furiously pumping hips.
He wanted to see her and cursed the layers of darkness in the room that prevented him from doing so, but he reached for her with his mind and pushed just as his body pushed – and, oh, oh, he was so nearly there—
Like molten lava, his orgasm began to form deep in the base of his spine, forming a core of pounding heat and light that crawled through his balls, roiling and spuming through his pelvis and towards his cock. He shook with the tension of it, his breath coming in frantic gasps as he felt his semen rising, rising, bringing with it an unbearable intensity as waves of sexual pleasure rippled and drove through his body. He felt her muscles surrounding him begin to flutter and clench, and he heard her voice rise in pitch; he was dimly aware of her nails raking his skin and her legs twisted around his body. She was chanting something, but he could not hear properly over the rushing sensation in his ears as he threw his head back and bellowed his release to the world.
He chased his orgasm to its end, his hips thrusting shallowly, his head bowed to her neck, lapping at the salty flesh there and trying to keep his arms from collapsing, feeling her relaxing slowly underneath him, her breath shallow and her fingers tracing circles down his spine.
"Oh, bloody hell," he panted against her neck. "Bloody hell," he repeated, his voice hoarse with fatigue and pleasure. He planted light kisses along her collarbone, feeling his prick wilt and wither inside her and gently disengaged, half-rolling, half-falling off her, his heart slowly returning to its normal rhythm. His head was foggy with exhaustion, and a heavenly sense of voided emptiness tingled in his bollocks. He wondered if he had ever felt quite this contented in his entire wretched, miserable life before.
There was a faint rustle then Hermione whispered, "Lumos," and they both blinked in the harsh wand light. Hermione rose up on her elbow over him. Her face was flushed and smiling, her eyes wide and shining. Severus stared back at her, calming his breathing, trying to force his brain into some form of rational order.
Before he could speak, she leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips, flicking her tongue playfully against his lower lip, sending shivers of renewed excitement dancing like shards of light through him. "Alright?" she murmured, her fingers stroking slowly in a line down the middle of his chest and stomach, ruffling the softer black hairs on his belly.
He snorted at the idiocy of her question, lifting his hand to wind his fingers through her beautiful, fabulous hair. "Beautiful," he muttered, amazed that he could still form actual words with his mouth. Of course he was all right, he had never felt better, ever, ever, ever. He raised a sleepy eyebrow at her. Lassitude was spreading softly throughout his body, pulling him in. "You?" he managed, and was rewarded by the best smile he had ever, ever, ever….
He felt her curl more closely around him, her hand flat on his belly, her chin tucked into his shoulder. She made a soft, contented sound and rubbed her cheek against his chest. "I know what we can do to avoid the Ministry," she whispered. He could feel her breath tickle across his nipple. "But I think we should get some sleep now and sort it out early in the morning."
He had never been kissed awake before.
He opened his eyes to see Hermione's thin face, her eyes smudged and dark in his early morning vision. He deepened the kiss, coming fully awake as he felt a smooth pulse of arousal spread through his groin. She chuckled then and pulled back before he could get a proper grip on her, pushing herself away from him and standing smoothly upright.
Snape frowned. "You're wearing clothes," he said, struggling to keep from sounding too petulant. He'd had plans for the morning….
She rolled her eyes and laughed delightedly at his ill humour, plucking at the russet red robes that swirled about her. "They are rather lovely, aren't they?" she asked, almost shy in front of him. "I asked one of the house-elves for clothes, and this is what he came up with. It reminds me of the stola I wore… Do you remember?" He nodded, throat dry, thinking of their companionable walk through the bustling city, of how uncomfortably aware of her beauty and desirability he had been that night, of sharing that incredible kiss outside his friends' house….
The fresh light of morning was streaming through the windows, catching the golden threads that were woven into the fine material of the robes that Hermione wore. She looked stunningly lovely, despite her thin frame and tired countenance. His lips quirked as he noticed the small purple bruise on her neck at the base of her throat. He looked forward to making more of those in the days to come. Another beat of excitement tingled through him at that prospect.
"I've asked the elf for some clothes for you, too," she continued, pulling at the sheet that covered him. "You need to get up, Severus; it's a big day today." She stared at him in obvious expectation, and he blinked as his memories from yesterday reformed in his head. Poppy. The Ministry. Shit.
"I'm not talking to any newspapers," he began flatly. "And the Ministry can bugger off, too."
She rolled her eyes. "Of course not! But you'd better get up if you want to avoid becoming a featured article in the Daily Prophet. We've got the rest of our lives to enjoy together. Poppy prescribed a holiday for your recuperation: good food, warm weather, and… ahh… exercise. And I know the perfect place." She tweaked the sheet impatiently with her fingers.
"Nag," he grumbled but got up anyway.
Two hours later, Severus was sitting in a Muggle coffee shop off Charing Cross Road – not one of those awful chains with teas that taste of dust and sugar and coffees that have no taste whatsoever – but an old-fashioned, independent café with antique curios decorating the walls and seats that had been ripped out of old theatres, or dental surgeries, or house clearance sales. The cakes on the coffee bar were homemade, and the coffee varieties were listed on a chalk and blackboard menu with exotic names like Jabberwocky, Sidikalang, or Yirgacheffe.
He took an appreciative sip of the complex Ethiopian blend he had ordered and returned the cup back to its saucer before turning his attention back to the Sudoku puzzle before him. He shifted a little on his chair, an old theatre seat, its dark velvet upholstery fashionably shabby, and his hand fluttered briefly over the Gringotts key sitting next to the saucer on his table.
The key had opened a vault considerably richer than he had left it eleven years ago. Snape would long remember the mixture of disgruntled irritation and grudging respect that Griphook had worn after he had passed the identification procedure for access to his vault. The goblin had directed a particularly unpleasant look at Hermione, who stood beside Severus throughout, his face unaccountably set in a defensively determined expression as he had surrendered his wand and key to the bitter-faced creature.
Eventually satisfied, Griphook had lead the way grudgingly to the Snape vault and stood to one side as Severus had filled a sizeable bag with a range of coins. Severus had no idea where Hermione was imagining they would holiday... So long as it had soft linens and warm pillows, he really didn't care. He was getting increasingly used to the idea that, against all odds, he had survived and, better, that he had retained the affections of a beautiful and intelligent young woman. Snape had noticed that Griphook had not let Hermione out of his sight at any time... and that she had not needed to visit her vault at the bank either.
They had not spent too much time in Diagon Alley. He had cast a light Concealment Charm over himself to prevent others from recognising him, but he had still felt uncomfortable pushing and jostling his way along the street. It had reminded him too painfully of his Pompeiian memories. He had missed the warmth of the sun, the industry of the city, the freedom of not being derided as a turncoat Death Eater. More than anything, he had realised, as Hermione had squeezed his hand in silent understanding, he missed his friends, even though they had only existed in his imagination. One sharp-faced witch had stared at him a little too long, and he had nudged Hermione to move along to The Leaky Cauldron so that they could escape the chance of detection.
Little chance of that here, he thought with satisfaction. Snape stretched his legs, feeling the muscles burn slightly and then relax as he did so. The bacon sandwich he had eaten earlier sat satisfyingly heavy in his stomach. He was feeling stronger; the Concealment Charm he had cast on himself had not drained him, and physically, he had coped with the walk to and from Gringotts well. He took a deep breath. Hermione had insisted on Side-Alonging him to London once the startled, but amenable, infirmary house-elf had taken them to the school gates, but he could feel his magic was nearly at full strength again; just the faintest pull on his core reminded him that he was still recovering from serious incapacity.
He rubbed his hands idly over his new Muggle trousers (wizarding robes were a little too much, even for this area of London), wondering how much longer Hermione was going to be. She had left behind a note for the Ministry (he had eventually agreed that her version was more diplomatic than his draft), a thank you card for Poppy, and a letter for her parents. He understood her need to negotiate her return to the real world – she had left him nursing the strong pot of coffee and the Sudoku puzzles while she made a few telephone calls to her site director in Italy.
Severus took another sip of the bitter liquid, frowning at the numbers of the puzzle. He had completed the Difficult and Extreme versions of the challenge very quickly and was now working his way through the Super Fiendish, which was proving a little trickier.
The door to the coffee shop slammed open with a crash, and the jolly ting-a-ling of the shop bell. Severus looked up and was startled to see Hermione bearing down on him in agitation.
"What is it?" Snape was instantly alert on his feet with wand in hand. Hermione's face was pale as if she had experienced a shock – her eyes were wide and the pupils dilated, twin spots of red flared on her cheeks. She clutched at his arms, her mobile digging into his forearm painfully. Severus scanned the shop behind her. "It is the Ministry? Or the Prophet?" He shuddered but drew himself up to his full height. He was probably not in a fit enough state to duel for long, but he could get them enough time to get away—
"No," Hermione said, shaking her head. "It was... my boss at the dig. He was telling me about a new gravestone that has been discovered in Salerno, ancient Salernum – a new villa site that the Italian archaeological team from the university in Naples have just started to excavate." She was shaking, he noted with concern, and he urged her to sit down in the seat that he had just vacated, sinking into the chair next to her.
"It was unearthed last week before I had my... accident." She blushed again, and her fingers travelled unbidden to her forehead.
Snape frowned. "Spit it out, woman. What's got you into such a state?"
She looked at him. "We may need to put our holiday plans on hold for a little while, Severus," she told him. "The gravestone has Conviva's and Restitutus' names on it."
It was late afternoon by the time Hermione and Severus arrived at the dig site near to Salerno. He was well practiced at the creation of illegal Portkeys, and she knew exactly where they could travel to safely, so they created the Portkey together, her hand lying over his, the warmth of her magic flowing though his skin, caressing and enlivening him, sending delicious sensations through his body.
Now the sun was fading, the shadows were lengthening, and he was back in Italia with the smell of the pine trees and the cicadas chittering noisily in the darkening skies. Severus was standing close to Hermione as she explained, in her careful Italian to the youthful archaeologist at the villa site near Salerno, that she was here to see the recently discovered grave marker, that she could not wait until the following day, and that it was imperative that she and her colleague, Professor Snape, should see the find for themselves. The Italian was irritated. It was well past the hour for going home, and he was anxious to leave, but Hermione was remorseless.
Her credentials established, they were ushered through the temporary gates to the dig site, their feet scuffing on the dry soil of the path.
The villa site was on the apex of a rolling hill to the north of the city of Salerno, about an hour southeast of Napoli, with fine views over to the Mediterranean. The Italian archaeologist explained to Hermione that the local farmer had been ploughing early for his next crop and had discovered some archaeological remains and so had been obliged to report them to the local authorities. The dig was in its beginning stages but had already revealed a villa complex that was significant in both its size and the richness of the finds. Severus could feel Hermione's tension as she walked beside him. He knew that the Vettii were a famous family. Hermione explained to him that it was not known if they had survived the eruption in 79AD and, if they had, what had happened to them after that. He too could feel his heart beginning to thump more heavily in his chest as they walked quickly to a small marquee that had been erected over a patch of newly excavated ground.
Outside the tent, the young man paused, glancing longingly back at the exit of the site, and Hermione quickly assured him that she would close the gates behind them when they were ready to leave. He could leave in time for his date. Flashing a relieved smile at her, the young archaeologist walked away.
Severus followed Hermione into the tent; his nostrils immediately were assaulted by the smell of freshly turned earth, which contrasted with the sour plastic smell of the marquee. Hermione drew her wand and muttered, "Lumos."
A harsh light flared in the claustrophobic tent. Severus' eyes immediately fell onto the large engraved stone that had been carefully exposed in the earthen wall of a trench below their feet. The gravestone was engraved with a long Latin inscription, flanked on both sides by relief portraits of two seated individuals and one standing, two men and a woman. The inscription was etched deeply into the surface of the stone in the daggered script that was typical of most first-century AD engravers.
Hermione caught her breath, and she immediately dropped to her knees in front of the trench, lifting her wand so that she could see the details of the inscription more clearly. After a moment, she made a small frustrated noise and threw her legs over the edge of the trench, dropping down into it to kneel at the foot of the stele, her lips moving silently as she read the abbreviated Latin. After a few moments, she darted an anguished look up at Severus and reached out her hand to beckon him closer to her.
He sat down on the edge of the trench, took her hand and lowered himself gently down beside her. He squinted at the first line of the inscription in the wandlight. He could see the letters, Au VETTIUS M L CONVIVA, dug into the limestone. "It's them," he said. "It must be… But what exactly does it say?"
She looked back at the stone, running her fingers lightly over the surface of the inscription. "Do you remember your Translation Charm?" Hermione asked, her voice husky.
Severus nodded reluctantly. "But I'd rather you read it to me, Hermione," he said, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. "What does it say?"
Hermione turned back to the stone. She cleared her throat. "The 'D. M.' is an abbreviation for Dis Manibus, meaning 'to the kindly gods of the underworld'," she began, tracing the letters with her finger as she translated. "Umm, let me see, now… Most gravestone inscriptions are pretty formulaic…. The first line says 'Aulus Vettius Conviva, freedman of Marcus, ordered this tomb to be built for Aulus Vettius Restitutus, his brother, also know as… erm 'spica'… that's 'ear', singular… erm 'one ear, freedman also of Marcus— oh, bloody hell, it is them, Severus! It's the tomb of the Vettii – do you know what a significant find this is?" Her eyes were sparkling in the wandlight whether with tears or excitement, he couldn't tell.
"What else?" he murmured, inclining his head to indicate that she should go on.
Hermione focused again on the engraving. "'Freedman also of Marcus, and also for his loyal wife, Marcella Fidelia' – oh God, Severus, it's Marcella's tomb, too! But hang on—" her eyes were wide, "—we don't know the names of any wife that the Vettii brothers had. There's been no evidence before now that they were even married…."
Her voice drifted off into silence as her eyes flickered over the next set of characters. "Erm… 'Having escaped death by'… Oh shit, Severus – 'Having escaped death by the aid of magic, we lived on for many years in happiness and joy, raising strong heirs and keeping safe the… erm… mysteries that we shared, resolving to pass to the future generations the secrets of how we were… posse evadere… erm… able to escape… the anger of Vulcan and the… erm… quidquid est rationem artificiati… erm… whatever is the nature of the artefact' – I think I've got that right; what on earth does it mean, 'the nature of the artefact'?" Hermione frowned at the inscription, then continued. "'This is our eternal home, this is our farm, these are our orchards, this is our tomb.' That's a bit formulaic at the end, too; I've seen that before on another gravestone a bit like this… Oh, Severus… it's them."
Her voice trailed off into silence, and for a few seconds, Severus thought that he could hear her heartbeat as well as his own in the claustrophobic silence of the earthy trench. When he lifted his hand to outline the face of the seated woman carved in relief into the limestone tomb, he could see that it was shaking.
"Marcella…," he breathed. The woman stared out at him with an expression of calm certainty. Above her, Conviva was depicted, standing proudly behind his wife, his chin jutting out and his hand resting proprietorially on her shoulder. He re-read part of the inscription again, 'Living on for many years in happiness and joy', and he felt something easing in his chest – a happy life, a good life – and he was glad.
On the other side of the inscription, Severus could see the figure of Restitutus, one ear clearly missing, sitting in a low chair with a faint smile on his lips. Severus looked more closely. There was something dangling from the sculpture's hand on a thin string or chain.
It was too small, and the limestone too pockmarked to be sure, but despite that, Severus' hand automatically went to his throat, feeling once more for that ancient Time-Turner, the old broken thing, with sands that were fused and runes in the place of numbers… the old Time-Turner that had been passed down through his family on his mother's side for generations and which had been gifted to him reluctantly as a boy by his spiteful and unpleasant grandmother… The one he could not bring himself to throw away but had hidden in a secret compartment at the back of his punishment ledger when he had been Headmaster. He knew it was gone. It had not been in his hands when he had awoken, and Potter had not found it in his tomb.
He felt Hermione's fingers wrap themselves around his own and squeezed her hand in return.
"So, they did survive," she said softly. "And lived for many years." He nodded, unable to speak, almost overwhelmed by the sensation of hope and confusion warring in his mind.
"And we saved them," she whispered in wonder. "Bloody hell. Did we? I mean… Maybe I got the translation wrong…?"
He shrugged. "Perhaps," he said quietly. "Perhaps we did."
At that, he pulled her into his arms and kissed the top of her head. Whatever had passed before, he was here now with her, and the future stretched out before him, filled with hope and love. He increased the pressure of his arms around her until he felt her laugh a little and hug him back strongly.
"Now," he said, his voice deliberately light and teasing. "What about that holiday you were promising me?"
The smell of her hair, sweet and clean.
The sound of her breathing, slow and even.
The feel of her body, tucked closely against him, her hips pressed into his, her spine curled into his body, warm and vital.
He wakes slowly as he realises that she is semi-naked in his arms, that she is alive and so is he. Her hair tickles his nose and his face as he breathes in the scent of her, sweet and sweaty and somehow, unbelievably, impossibly, his own. He revels in the feeling of this small warm body fitted so closely to his, wondering at her persistence and her fierce determination to claim him.
Sometime in the night while she was sleeping, he pulled her to him again, enfolding her within his embrace, feeling the steady beat of her heart beneath his hand, the swell of her arse pressed into his groin, the sensation of its warm fullness against his prick sending electric impulses to his libido.
Her chest rises.
Stills under his hand… and falls again.
He smiles and kisses the nape of her neck softly so as not to wake her.
His bladder is aching, and he needs to get up. The alarm will soon ring, and he likes to have a fresh cup of espresso waiting for her on the balcony.
Slowly, carefully, he disentangles himself and stands. Hermione makes a small snuffling noise and rubs her cheek against the pillow, still sleeping. He watches her for a moment, marvelling at his life.
Then he pads to the front door and retrieves the morning's post, tossing the envelopes onto the kitchen table. Sunlight is streaming into the little brightly decorated room. It will be another lovely summer's day.
He visits the bathroom, showers quickly, then wanders, still naked but for the towel wrapped low about his hips – no need to wear clothes in this heat – back into the kitchen, lighting the stove and filling the old-fashioned percolator with fresh ground coffee and water. While he waits for the rich, bitter grounds to brew, Severus wanders over to the balcony windows, feeling the light breeze brush delightfully across his skin. Their rented apartment looks directly out over the Bay of Naples, and he can see the small fishing boats bobbing gently far below in the azure blue waters, alongside the motorboats and yachts in the harbour.
It is still too early for the first tourist boat of the day; at this time, the island is sleepy and relaxed. He pictures the old men hunching over their morning espressos in the little café on the square, chatting about the latest news, the price of olives and vinegar, or the antics of the latest starlet in the gossip magazines. He imagines the children getting ready for school, slinging their rucksacks over their shoulders and preparing to catch the bus from the station, the younger ones talking excitedly to one another, the teenagers listening to their Muggle music players, pouting quietly in the corner, flicking looks at one another to make sure they are noticed….
A flutter of wings, and a large Eurasian post owl lands with some panache on the back of one of their kitchen chairs. Showy, Severus thinks but unties the small bundle from its leg without comment and feeds it a treat. It emits a haughty trill and is gone in a flourish of feathers.
The percolator begins to bubble and spit on the stove, and he adjusts the heat, his eyes drawn to the post on the table. He pokes through the various letters and articles on the table. Another invitation for Hermione to speak at an academic conference, this time in Padua (he has never been to Padua)… two more orders for potion remedies (he keeps his hand in it with interesting commissions)… another letter from Potter (he pushes this one to one side with a long-suffering sigh)… a circular from the Italian Ministry for Magic (rooting out corruption at the highest level)… the latest edition of La Migliore Pozionia!, a new potions periodical he has subscribed to recently… a Muggle postcard from Hermione's parents, who are on holiday in Corsica (almost illegible writing from Hermione's father, but she will be delighted to read it).
He picks up the potions magazine and tucks it under one arm, glancing up at the clock on the kitchen wall to check the time. He grunts. He has a few minutes. He pours a small cup of the thick, aromatic coffee and walks back onto the balcony, past the Hogwarts infirmary exercise sheet that is framed on the wall.
He sits down carefully on one of the rickety bistro chairs that she loves so much (one day it will break, and he will be insufferable about it) and begins to read the periodical.
The articles are interesting, and he knows that he will need to employ a better Translation Charm to ease his understanding of some of the more technical terms. He is midway through a fascinating discussion of the advantages of using dragon's blood to boost the efficacy of heartsborne when he feels slim arms slide down his shoulders and chest and a warm cheek press against his own.
"That's my coffee," he says as he sees his cup disappear behind him. It returns shortly afterwards, drained.
"Is it any good?" Hermione gestures at the journal and sits opposite him, her hair tousled and her skin pink from the shower. She is wearing a light cotton bathrobe, which give a delicious glimpse of her cleavage. He leaves it with her and gets up to fetch more coffee, returning with another cup and saucer and the percolator.
When he returns, she is no longer sitting at the little table, but standing at the edge of the balcony, staring out across the Bay towards Napoli. He puts the coffee things on the table and goes to stand behind her. He understands her pensive mood.
"We are opening up a new area today in the District of the Faun," she says quietly.
He nods, slipping his arms about her, pulling her towards him, her back to his chest, and placing a kiss in her curls. In the distance, he can see the huge bulk of Vesuvius, dark and brooding, no longer the perfect cone shape that he remembers from his dreams.
She sighs. "More bodies," she says.
He kisses her again. "Yes. But you will find them," kiss, "and take care of them," another kiss, "and treat them with respect." He squeezes her firmly in his arms.
"Mmmmm." Her arms cross over her chest and find his arms.
"You'll bring them home." He kisses her again, feeling the familiar stirring of desire as he holds her close.
"Yes." She rolls her head slightly, giving him more access to the side of her neck.
"Anima mea," he murmurs and kisses her once more before they both look out across the bay, eyes narrowed against the early morning sun.
Across the Bay of Naples, he can see the mainland, the looming form of Vesuvius, dark against the pale blue of the morning sky. He pictures the city of Naples, curving around the flanks of the volcano, pressing around its foot and spreading out around the bay for miles and miles….
"How many people live in Napoli now?" she asks as if following his train of thought.
He tightens his hold slightly. "About five million," he said softly, understanding what she means by the question.
Hermione nods and shivers. She turns her head slightly and kisses her husband again, obviously wishing to be distracted from her thoughts.
He smiles – happy to oblige – and scoops her into his arms, revelling in her sinuous embrace, the feel of her warm skin… the touch of her tongue.
They will have time for more coffee later.
Far away, in the distance, a plume of smoke hangs over the mountain.
Dies Dominica XXIV Februarius MMXIII
Final Author's Note
The Vettii (Conviva and Restitutus) did exist, and you can visit their house in the city today. Equally, there is evidence that the Thracian cult of Sabazios increased in popularity at around the time of the eruption in Pompeii. All other Roman characters (beyond the Emperor) are my own invention. The details of the city are as accurate as I could make them. I placed Severus' house in an area that is yet to be excavated, but it is based on a real city dwelling that has been excavated called the house of Valerius Rufus, in the south east of the city in Insula Block 6. There is no evidence of a vivarium at Pompeii unlike that one found in Rome near the Coliseum, but I had to put my Manticore somewhere!
If you would like to find out more, I recommend the following books and website:
The Roman World: Pompeii by Peter Connolly (Oxford University Press)
Pompeii: the Day a City was Buried by Chris and Melanie Rice (Dorling Kindersley)
Pompeii: the Living City by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence (Phoenix)
Pompeii: the Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard (Profile Books)
The British Museum is hosting an exhibition on "The Life and Death of Pompeii and Herculaneum" from 28 March – 29 September 2013, if you can get to London to see it!
I don't own JKR's world, and I am eternally grateful to have been given the opportunity to borrow her inventions for a while.
This work of fan fiction would not have been possible without beaweasely2, whose sound advice on, well, everything, from plotting to character development to the Potter universe itself, good humour, and strict planning rules enabled this story to get out of the blocks in the first place. Lyn_f was with me at the beginning of this story as my first beta, and I am very grateful that she took pity on an untried writer. Clairvoyant took over when lyn_f couldn't continue and has been with me so far. She is unbelievably kind, thoughtful, and wonderful, and what this lady doesn't know about dangling participles or compound predicates is not worth knowing! Admins rarely get a mention, and yet it is these hard working people who bring the quality of the work published here to such a high standard. Astopperindeath was my first admin, and she resisted the temptation to send me a rejection letter, even though my horrendous grammar certainly deserved it in the early days. Linlawless took over from Clairvoyant, when C became my beta, and more recently, the lovely nagandsev has shouldered the burden of my last minute changes and confused pronouns.
Magnum has created a front page for this story (thankyou!), which you can find at: photos/30097663 N04/8479207612
To those of you who read and review, you have made the process of writing more rewarding and challenging. For those of you who have been with me throughout the story, this tale really is for you. I hope that you continue to read and review the work on this site. Thank you for reading.
Final FINAL Author Update (December 2013): Anima Mea has been nominated for Best Drama/Angst in the HP Fanfic Fan Poll Awards (Fall/Winter 2013). Needless to say I am deeply honoured by the nomination. AM is in extraordinary company – please go over to the HP Fanfic Fan Poll Awards on Livejournal and take a look at all the nominees there. Thank you, Pxx