Hermione finally turned to look her husband in the face. He lay, utterly relaxed, his hair spread out over the pillow like a mermaid's and mingling with her own. And in his eyes - tears.
The sight brought her up to one elbow. "Severus?"
He blinked at her. She wiped the tear away from the corner of his eye with a fingertip.
"Sorry," he said, sounding sheepish. "I don't usually -"
"I know," she said, before he had to. "That was . . . but with the higglewumps gone, we're going to have to end this, aren't we?"
His dark eyes bored into hers. They were filled with pain and regret. "Have I ever told you what a truly astounding young woman you are, Hermione?" He shot her a tiny, tight smile. "Sometimes I think I go for days or weeks without once ever being able to say what I actually feel. It's been nice not having to do that with you."
Hermione kissed his nose. "You're not answering my question."
He closed his eyes. "I don't think I could . . . explain staying married to a muggle-born witch, especially you, when I'm supposed to believe the Dark Lord's stance on pureblood wizards." His hand found hers, by touch rather than by sight, and he squeezed her fingers. "There's also the matter of you being my student, even if you are legally an adult in the muggle world."
"I don't give a fig for either of those reasons," she said. And realized she meant it.
"The Dark Lord will." He opened his eyes again, pinning her with a look of such tenderness Hermione could feel tears pricking at her own as well. "I don't want to lose you, Hermione. But this war isn't about what I want, or what you want, or anything else. It's about making sure there's a future, free of He Who Must Not Be Named. And maybe, if we both survive, someday once we've won and the rest of the Death Eaters are all rounded up . . ."
He didn't believe it would happen, Hermione realized, but he was trying to reassure her anyway. And the realization nearly broke her heart. He's given up so much, so many years, only to have to sacrifice more . . .
And then she was crying too, and there was nothing she could do to stop the tears from running down her cheeks. "You have to do it, then," she forced herself to say. "Divorce me. Right now. You can be honest when He Who Must Not Be Named wants to know."
He swallowed hard, looking for all the world like he wanted to kiss the tears from her face but knowing he couldn't. "Hermione-"
"Don't." She put her finger against his lips. "Just - put on that indifferent mask, Severus. Tell yourself you don't love me. Make it convincing."
He started at the word love. "Hermione, I -"
"Don't say it." She somehow knew he was about to protest, and she couldn't bear to hear. "You don't have to tell me - it will be harder if you do. And I won't tell you how much I've come to love you."
"I can't," he whispered. "I can't pretend with you."
"And that's the biggest reason of all we have to do this." She speared her fingers through the hair at the back of his skull and brought his head up to hers for a brief, scorching kiss. "You can't afford to not be in control, Severus. I don't want to be your fatal weakness."
He nodded, the look on his face so intense Hermione could barely stand it. And then his expression changed, the fire slowly draining out, replaced by the blank indifference and faint sneer he had worn as a shield for almost the entire time Hermione had known him. Even as her chest was aching for what he had to do, Hermione felt a spear of admiration for his incredible skill at hiding himself away. Maybe someday he won't need to . . .
When he spoke, his voice was dull and flat. "Hold up your marriage token, please, Hermione."
She extended her wrist to him. He retrieved his wand from the mattress beside him and touched the tip to the loop of twine. "Severmentus," he whispered. The twine fell away, cut cleanly where the wand had touched. "Your turn."
Hermione took his wrist and repeated the spell. The twist of hair dropped to the mattress, now just a knot in a few loose strands of hair, looking just like the strands Hermione cleaned out her hairbrush on a regular basis. They both looked down at it for a long moment, then at each other.
"May I . . . keep the bracelet?" she asked tentatively.
"If you wish." He waved his wand, and the severed piece of twine flew into Hermione's bag near the bureau. Another wave, presumably a nonverbal packing spell, and the rest of Hermione's belongings joined it. He waved a third time - almost as an afterthought - and a clean set of clothes wafted through the air and settled itself on the bed in front of her. "Get yourself dressed, Miss Granger."
He dressed while she did, with no evidence of stiffness or soreness despite the visible marks on his body. Hermione avoided looking at him as much as she could, afraid if she did, she'd start crying in earnest. All too soon, she was dressed and packed and bundled out into the hallway. She didn't trust herself to speak.
"Goodbye, Miss Granger," he said after she put her hand over the doorknob and he cancelled the unlocking spell. "I will see you in class on Monday."
Hermione looked up at him, drinking in the sight one last time before she went back to her normal life. He met her gaze calmly, impassively, and yet -
"You asked that I tell you," he said quietly, "if this expression was ever more than just a mask."
"You should know - for you, it will never not be a mask. I may not ever say it again, but you alone should always be able to tell what I would be feeling if I were free to do so." He smiled, a wry, tight-lipped smile. "Maybe someday I'll be able to show my true face to you again."
Hermione swallowed hard, fighting the urge to cling to him. "I hope so."
And then, in the hardest thing she'd ever had to do, she turned away and headed back to the Gryffindor commons room.
So that's it. A bit bittersweet, perhaps, but in wartime, sacrifices need to be made . . . and I'll leave it up to the reader whether Snape survives the final battle or not :-)
If you liked the story, check out my other work and/or add me to your favorites! I have another Hermione/Snape fic up on AO3 (I'm wendymarlowe on there as well), which I'll be posting as a chapter a day on here as well. Come check out "Wizard in the Basement, Witch with the Key" - it's not a direct sequel, but I like to think the characters are consistent with who they would have been . . .