Disclaimer: Not mine, per usual.
A/N: This is the last part of the story. I truly hope you all enjoy it, and thank you, so much, to everyone who has reviewed and sent messages. Thank you, once again, to my wonderful beta, Ivy Amelia.
A/N: This is the last part of the story. I truly hope you all enjoy it, and thank you, so much, to everyone who has reviewed and sent messages.
Thank you, once again, to my wonderful beta, Ivy Amelia.
"Confidentially," Hermione's boss says, leaning across his desk toward her and lowering his voice, "it was between you and Davies for the job. But you've won out, Ms. Granger -" He pauses when Hermione lets out a tiny breath, waits a moment for her to compose herself, to stop the beaming smile she can feel taking over her entire face. "- You've won out. I've been very impressed by your work the last year or so. You've always had a strong work ethic, but your proposals have been top-notch lately. Very impressive stuff." He nods at the door, grimacing slightly. "If you'd send Davies in after you, I would appreciate it."
Hermione struggles to arrange her face into an expression of modesty. "Of course, sir." She closes the door behind her and glances at the clock. Five minutes until it's an acceptable time to go home for the day, and for once she's going to leave on time.
Her first thought, then, is that she has to tell Snape.
No. She stops with her hands poised above her beaded handbag and stares for several long seconds at nothing. No, not Snape. She has to tell Ron. She has to go home and tell Ron.
Her excitement oozes, it feels, through the soles of her shoes, leaving puddles in her wake as she walks down the corridor to the Atrium Floos. It was only all the help Snape has been giving her, she thinks, that made her thoughts jump to him rather than Ron, the hours he has spent tetchily forcing her to cut extraneous words or paragraphs - or, once, six entire pages - from her work. That's all.
She nods to herself as she tosses a pinch of powder into one of the enormous Atrium fireplaces.
At home, Ron is cradling Hugo against his shoulder and listening to Rose chatter lispingly about her day. Hermione Vanishes the ash she has brought with her through the Floo and holds out her arms as Rose twirls around to face her, crying, "Mummy!"
"Oof," Hermione says, catching her daughter against her chest. She buries her face in Rose's frizz of red hair, inhaling the slightly-sour smell of a small child who needs a bath. "Hello, love," she whispers.
"Hello, Mummy," Rose whispers back, smiling as she always does at their ritual. Hermione smiles back and hoists her into her arms, standing and looking at Ron.
"How was your day?" he asks, carrying Hugo over so she can kiss him.
"Good," she says, and finds her excitement returning. "In fact… it was very good, really."
"Yeah." She grins. "You're looking at the new Head for the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures!"
"Yeah?" Ron says again. "That's great. About time, though, I'd say."
His response strikes Hermione as a bit lukewarm. "Well, it's not like I could become Head before Caldiff decided to retire," she says, somewhat sharply.
Ron raises his eyebrows. If he wasn't holding Hugo, Hermione imagines he would be holding up in hands in a gesture of surrender. She can remember him when they were students, his palms raised and pointed toward her. He would strive for a conciliatory expression, but she could always read the, "She's a bit mental, isn't she?" in his eyes.
And maybe she is, at that.
"Ugh," she says, and shifts Rose on her hip. "I just… well, I wasn't sure I'd get it, after all, so I was pretty thrilled."
Ron shakes his head at her. "Of course you got it," he said. "You're Hermione. You're brilliant."
The words are so very sweet, and they make Hermione ache deep under her sternum. Ron thinks she was promoted on sheer brilliance. Ron has no idea how much hard work over the years - and lately, how much help - secured this promotion. It's such a large part of her life - the largest, outside Rose and Hugo - and he has no idea. And it's her own fault, mostly, but also his, and she smooths Rose's hair and tries to smile at Ron because, after all, he thinks he has given her a compliment.
At odd moments, Severus finds himself remembering the strangest things about his body. He had a cluster of small brown birthmarks over his left ribs, and silky white lines on the outer edges of his thighs from his sudden growth spurt at age fifteen. He used to wake to crusty bits at the corners of his eyes. He thinks there is a good chance that his toenails were in need of clipping when he died, but he cannot be certain.
Groups of schoolchildren continue to plague him periodically, but Severus does not want to run the risk of baiting them too often, instead remaining out of sight, blending into the wallpaper when they throw stones at the windows or, very rarely, dare to venture into the shack itself, their footsteps hesitant, their bodies jerking each time they make a floorboard creak. They note the books on the floor without apparent interest and do not seem to mark the lack of dust at all, and Severus is, for once, grateful for the relative stupidity of the average student.
Once, to his discomfiture, a pair of teenagers enters, looking furtively over their shoulders and then around the shack itself before they press their mouths together and swallow one another's nervous giggles, twining together like Devil's Snare atop the boy's cloak. Severus watches them, lip curled despite the starbursts of envy going off where his insides once lay. When the boy slips a hand under the girl's skirt, it occurs to Severus that it might be imprudent to allow them to finish their tryst uninterrupted - he doesn't want hoards of randy Hogwarts students realizing the Shrieking Shack is a good place for a bit of privacy - and he drifts through the pair on the floor, whose eyes are closed, their fingers tugging frantically at each other's clothing. He lingers just long enough to cause some serious discomfort, then whooshes up through the ceiling. From below, he hears the girl shriek, the boy shout, "What the hell?"
Cautiously, Severus sinks back through the floor and hovers against the ceiling, blending in with the cracked plaster. The students have scrambled upright; the boy is grabbing for his cloak, the girl pulling down her skirt, her eyes darting around the room. They pass over Severus, unseeing.
"Maybe this place really is haunted," she says, shivering.
"Maybe." The boy grabs her wrist. "C'mon, let's go."
If anyone with a modicum of intelligence ever did enter the shack, Severus thinks a few years later, there is no way the place could be mistaken for uninhabited. He looks around at the changes Granger has wrought over the years. The books are now organized on a set of second-hand shelves and Charmed to remove themselves a certain distance, drop, and fall open when he reads their titles. They took her a tremendous amount of time to Charm; Severus felt useless, watching her work, her forehead wrinkled in concentration, useless and ashamed of his former self. He truly hadn't allowed himself to recognize her strengths when she was his student, or acknowledge how hard she was willing to work.
She has placed candles in the wall sconces and Charmed them to ignite at dusk each evening so Severus can continue reading if he wishes. They illuminate the armchair with its sagging cushion that she brought one day in her ridiculous handbag. When Severus made a snide remark about how useful such an object would be to him, she said archly, "Some of us, you know, have actually been aging. As much as I've enjoyed sitting on the floor over the years, my back has started complaining after our visits."
For the first time, Severus notices the subtle changes in Granger's appearance since that first day she discovered him, the way her face looks softer somehow around the edges. There are, he realizes, a few strands of silver in her hair. He wonders how many of the changes are truly the result of getting older, and how many are premature, brought about by the war and having to grow up too fast.
Until now, he has marked the passage of time in the larger sense - the years, rather than marking each week by her visits - by watching her children change and grow in the photographs Granger occasionally brings for him to see. Rose is now all legs and sharp elbows, a Weasley in every way, including her lanky body type, except for her hair, which, though red, has her mother's hair's tendency toward frizz. Hugo is rounder, softer, and still looks like a miniature Granger with his dark hair and brown eyes and the deep cleft in his chin, apparent even below cheeks that still retain their baby fat. He is not entirely sure of their ages, or Granger's. He wonders how many years before she catches him up in age and experience; how many years before she exceeds him.
Hermione brings Snape the latest edition of The Potioneer one morning, slipping out of the house before dawn, leaving a note on the kitchen table and Ron still snoring quietly in their bed. It is a Saturday, the first such in years that she has left the house to see Snape. She will Apparate to that wonderful new bakery in Hogsmeade and bring pastries home with her as a treat for breakfast, cavities be damned; she'll probably be back before Ron and the children are even awake.
Snape is reading by candlelight when she arrives at the shack. In the darkness, he looks more other-worldly than she has seen him for some time. She hangs back for a moment in the doorway, looking at him, at the way his long fingers hover above the book, tracing the line of text he is reading; at the fall of his bright-dark hair over his shoulder, hiding the ghastly wound on his neck; at his back, curved in the hunched-over posture of a lifelong academic.
When Snape has finished the paragraph he is reading, he turns his head and looks at Hermione over his shoulder. She smiles. Of course he knew she was there.
"To what do I owe the pleasure?" he asks, straightening. If he had a proper body, Hermione thinks, he would have been rolling his shoulders, twisting his neck to get the kinks out.
She opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again. What comes out is the untempered truth, though she hadn't known she was about to be honest until she started talking.
"Ron and I had a row last night," she says, fidgeting; she rarely talks about Ron, or at least, she rarely talks about her relationship with Ron. "Rose is going off to school soon, and I thought - well, Salem has a wonderful magical arts program, far better than anything Hogwarts or the schools on the Continent can offer, and Rose is very gifted. But Ron… he can't see her, can't see anyone, really, going that far away."
Snape makes a derisive noise, but doesn't otherwise speak. Hermione shakes her head.
"He's not being - that is, I think it's because of Fred, though I'm not sure Ron even knows why he's so angry about this. But ever since the war, the Weasleys have all kind of stuck close together. Even Charlie moved back to England. I think he's afraid to have her so far, but, but it's different for me, being Muggle-born. With Portkeys and Apparition and - well, I won't see Rose for a good part of the year as it is, no matter which school she attends; with magical means of transportation, nothing seems very far away to me, anymore. But Ron doesn't see it that way."
"Mmm," Snape says. "So, you argued and then - you felt the need to come here, this morning?"
"We more hissed at each other under the covers so the children wouldn't hear us than argued," Hermione says, with a pained little smile. "But… yeah." She shrugs. It has been awhile since she has felt the need to explain, even in her own mind, her propensity for feeling at ease here in the shack, with Snape.
Snape flicks a glance at her, lips twisted wryly. Hermione blinks; she has the sensation that he knows exactly what she is thinking, feeling, without her having to spell it out.
Granger's expression flickers into something pained.
"What is it?" Severus asks.
"We're always going to have the same arguments," she says in a rush, and Severus does not need to ask to know she is talking about herself and Weasley. "Over and over again. For the rest… for the rest of our lives." She sits down upon the floor, ignoring the armchair completely, pulls her knees into her chest and wraps her arms around her calves. Her chin rests upon her knees, her abundant hair falling forward on either side of her face so that Severus cannot make out her expression. He is silent, hovering beside her, waiting for her to continue.
She makes a damp sort of sound, halfway between amusement and despair. "It's not as if he's abusive or running around on me. There's no good reason for me to… And he does love me, I know he does, and he's a good father. A wonderful father, really. But it's exhausting. Even more so now that the kids are getting old enough to understand us; I just keep - keep everything in now, you know? I don't want them to hear us fighting."
Severus makes an involuntary noise and Granger looks up at him. Her eyes go a bit wide at the corners, and he wonders what it is she is seeing in his face. Her own is dry and tired. He looks away, at the dust motes dancing in the light, and remembers, viscerally, the fear, the anguish of listening to his parents arguing, his mother's shrieks, his father's fist banging on the table to emphasize a point. Remembers curling into a fetal position in the corner, hugging his own elbows, waiting for them to stop and feeling, deep down, that somehow their brokenness was his fault.
"That is a good instinct," he says, his voice rough. From the corner of his eye, Severus sees her sit up straighter, crane her head to see his expression. She opens her mouth to speak but he talks over her.
"And yet," he says, and now he looks into her eyes, "it will do them no good to learn from you to keep silent when they have something they want to talk about, either."
Granger eyes fill and she glances away. "I know that."
Severus nods. He still imagines he has insides, and they are coiling themselves into knots of anxiety and mortification. He is unused to discussing anything personal, anything… intimate. The question he wants to ask feels audacious, the answer something he has no right to know.
"I do - I love him, really," Granger blurts, and Severus stares at her, wondering when she became a Legilimens and how she was able to perform Legilimency on him, a ghost. Her cheeks are flushed with embarrassment, but her eyes are defiant. "I really do. It's just… it's not… It's not what I think it should be. We've been through so much together, he and I and, well, and Harry, of course, and I don't think there could ever be a time when I wouldn't love him, wouldn't care what happened to him, but just now… It's not…" She takes in a deep breath, and Severus' phantom lungs ache. "We don't share what I thought I would with a husband, I suppose."
Severus hardly knows what to say; his mouth opens and closes several times without any sound emerging, and he looks away from her. Despite knowing that he cannot actually sense such things, he feels as though the air around them is hot and somehow stretched. When he gathers the courage to look back at her, she has settled more comfortably against the wall and is gazing, with an expression of faint embarrassment, at her shoes.
Rose goes off to Hogwarts, and then, soon after, Hugo follows her, and the house seems very quiet. Ron gives Hermione a buff on the cheek in the mornings, clutching a cup of coffee in one hand and a slice of toast in the other and watching while she dashes about gathering her scattered things on her way out the door to work. He is coaching these days, a minor team with bleak prospects from Aberdeen; he is aggressively cheerful and self-effacing, despite Harry's recent promotion to second-in-command in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, which, Hermione thinks, makes a nice change from their school days when Ron was sullen and moody whenever Harry was in the limelight and he, himself, was not.
The children's letters from school are filled with chatter about essays and exams, friends and Quidditch. There is not a single mention of monsters lurking in the pipes or trolls let loose in the bathrooms, and Hermione relaxes fractionally with each breezy missive she receives. She carefully does not allow herself to remember too clearly that her letters home never mentioned such things, either.
She reads their letters aloud to Ron, and when their eyes meet in shared mirth over something Hugo has written, or in fond exasperation over Rose's tendency toward the dramatic, Hermione can almost call herself contented.
There is, of course, a party at the Burrow when Rose graduates, and Ron gets spectacularly drunk, drunker than Hermione has seen him in years. She Apparates him home at the end of the night to sleep it off, pawning Hugo off on Harry and Ginny. It takes a great deal of effort to coax Ron into his pajamas, and once he has finally tumbled to sleep Hermione curls up on her side facing him. He is snoring in his usual open-mouthed and messy fashion. His hair is getting too long, she thinks, looking at the way it is starting to curl around his ears; though not nearly so long as Snape's, and the thought makes her blink too fast. She presses the tips of her fingers against her lips and closes her eyes.
Ron's body is nearly as familiar to Hermione as her own: She knows the starburst pattern of the freckles on his upper back, the softness of his stomach, the high arches of his feet. She knows how his breath smells when he kisses her good-night (like the peppermint toothpaste she has been using since childhood), and how it smells when he kisses her good-morning (sweet-and-sour, like rotting vegetables). She knows the bluntness of his fingers and the curve of his arse and the way his body hair has become somehow softer with age, fluffing up as it has faded from wiry auburn to something that looks sun-bleached.
She will never, ever know Snape's body the way she knows Ron's. The thought - the realization - is far more painful than it should be, and God, it shouldn't be a realization at all, just a fact, an obvious, bare, mundane fact. She is a married woman, she has children, and it should not be a surprise that she will not be becoming as intimately acquainted with another man's body as she is with her husband's. And then she pushes her fingers harder against her mouth to stifle the hysterical bubble of laughter she feels suddenly looming, because Snape's incorporeality rather trumps her marriage as the most practical reason she will never know him intimately. She swallows hard several times then turns over, very carefully so as not to disturb Ron, determined to go to sleep.
Behind her closed lids swim images of Snape as she remembers him in life: All bones and pale face and stringy dark hair. She wonders whether the skin of his chest was even paler than that of his face; whether he had dark hair on his arms or legs or stomach. She puts the palm of her hand against her own stomach, which is soft, the skin folding these days in a dozen new and creative ways; draws her hand up to cup one breast, gently marked by silver lines and less full than it used to be. Ron has never remarked on the changes time and childbirth have wrought on her body, and Hermione finds herself wondering what Snape would think, if he were to see her.
She is still lying there, wide awake and restless, several hours later, when she decides that perhaps a walk would be just the thing to quiet her mind.
Severus has been looking at the sky for what must be several hours, tracing patterns in the stars. Some are patterns he remembers vaguely from his Astronomy classes; some he invents, or thinks he does, at least, on the spot. He was, at best, a desultory scholar of the stars when he was a student, preferring to pour his mental energy into other topics that truly interested him. And ever since Albus… well, he avoided the Astronomy Tower during that dreadful year as Headmaster, unable to face the ramparts and the vast, dark empty sky beyond them.
But now, squinting upwards, he wishes he had a fuller knowledge of what he is seeing. The cosmos seem more interesting now he has eternity to observe them. Perhaps he can ask Granger to bring him some books on the subject.
At that moment, as though Conjured by Severus' thoughts, Granger pops into existence a few paces away.
"Hello," she says, tucking stray hair behind her ears. She looks odd; nervous. Her eyes slide away from Severus'.
"Hello," he says. He wonders what she could be doing here at such an odd hour; though watching her shift from one foot to the other, he finds he doesn't particularly care, as long as there is nothing terribly wrong. He gestures to the ground beside him. "Would you care to join me?"
Granger gives him a small, pleased smile. She settles down on the grass, bracing her weight on her palms, and tips her head back to look at the sky. Severus observes her for a moment, tracing with his eyes the strong line of her jaw and the length of her neck, before deliberately turning his attention, once more, to the stars above them.
"Rose graduated today," Hermione says, breaking the silence that has stretched between them for several long moments.
Snape glances at her. "Indeed?"
"Yes." She inhales, breathing in the lovely, loamy smell of the ground in late Spring. "It's so strange. She was… she was very small, just a minute ago." "Mmm."
Hermione has shifted so she is lying on her back, mimicking Snape's own posture, hovering as close to the earth as he can manage. The grass is damp against her palms, the air pleasantly cool against her face. It feels heavenly. She hasn't been outside at this hour in more years than she cares to remember. She looks at Snape, wondering whether he is experiencing the moment in the same way she is, at all. In all these years, she has been careful about asking him questions; he is so reserved, and too many of the things she wants to understand feel like invasions of his privacy. But now, in the Otherworld that is the hours between midnight and dawn, she is daring.
"Can you feel things? Physical things, I mean?" she asks. She feels a strange light heartedness, entirely at odds with the hour and the dew seeping through her robes. And the dour, ghostly company. She feels real, intellectual excitement, so much so that she forgets all dignity and rolls over onto her stomach in the grass, the better to see him. He is very still, on his back, the dark-brightness of his hair spread out just above the ground, his hands crossed together over his stomach. Hermione kicks her heels lightly in the air, a childish, uncoordinated dance against the stars.
Snape seems to stiffen further. "Not as such," he says. He unfolds his hands, runs the fingers of one through the grass at his side. They pass through as though the blades aren't there at all. "There is. . . an awareness, of things. An imprinted memory, perhaps, of how they ought to feel. Rather like a phantom limb, I expect."
She raises her brows at the unspoken irony: Now he is a ghost, all the corporeal things surrounding him are phantoms.
"What about feelings? I mean, emotions?" she says without thinking. "Can you feel them? Just the same as you did when you were alive, I mean?"
Snape moves his hand, which had been sweeping through the grass between them in subtly widening arcs. One more arc and he would have been touching her; now he clasps his hands together again against his waistcoat.
"Yes," he says tersely.
One day, Severus thinks of Lily, really thinks of her, not the fleeting images of her that sometimes plague him at the oddest moments but a true, sustained, deliberate thought, for the first time in what must be years. The picture of her in his mind is fuzzy and blurred, like a very old memory. Which is, he realizes, exactly what she is to him, now.
Even now, even knowing that her son is alive and well and that he, himself did not fail quite so spectacularly as he had feared, Severus has no wish to see her again. To see anyone who awaits him beyond, really: Albus, his parents, the fucking Marauders, the fucking Dark Lord. And he has little doubt that none of them would be pleased to see him. Whatever it means to 'see' another person in whatever-it-is-that-exists-beyond-death. Severus has trouble believing it is anything like the Muggle idea of Heaven, with everyone making merry with one another while floating upon clouds. But he is sure the others are there, in some form or another; they are, he thinks, in large part what made him recoil from leaving this plane.
Granger's daughter's graduation shook Severus more than he would like to admit. More time has passed since the girl's birth than he realized; less time remains for him to spend with Granger. Granger, whose image in his mind is sharp and immediate and as visceral as anything can be to him these days. Granger, with her wide smile and quick mind and the bewildering enjoyment she seems to have in his company.
He cannot go on, stuck here, alone, forever. He cannot.
. . . . .
"You told me once that you had done extensive research about -" Snape waves a hand vaguely over his insubstantial form, "ghosts." He spits out the word as though it tastes bad, though of course, Hermione knows, even if words had tastes Snape wouldn't be able to experience them.
"Yes," she says, craning her neck to look at him. He is doing his pacing-thing, for want of a better word, drifting with purposeful speed to and fro across the shack.
"In your research did you ever come across evidence that a ghost can… change his mind?"
"Change his mind?"
He makes a gesture of frustration. "Go on, leave this - place."
"Oh." A strange humming suddenly fills Hermione's ears, and her heart begins thumping worryingly fast against her ribs. "Oh, I… I don't know. I don't think so. But I'll… I'll have a look again."
Snape nods, eyes half-lidded and unfocussed. "I would appreciate that," he says, and Hermione thinks she might be sick.
There is little to be found about ghosts' ability to continue on once they had already made the choice to remain behind, and Hermione finds herself feeling guiltily glad of it as she pores over one book after another with no real luck. Knowing that Snape is thinking in these terms makes her ache somewhere deep inside; it hurts to have it made so plain that their… friendship… is not enough to make him happy as he is. Well, of course it isn't, she thinks. Of course it isn't - how could it be? A few books, some music, visits when she has time: None of these could possibly make up for everything he lacks. A body, for one. Company of his choosing, for another.
If she had found anything conclusive, Hermione would have felt honor-bound to tell Snape, and then - then he would leave, and the thought of continuing without him, of going to work, writing letters to the children, reading in the evenings, or knitting lumpy scarves and mittens, while Ron watches terrible telly, is unexpectedly unbearable. But she does not find anything, really; there are a very few tales of ghosts that haunted certain locations for centuries before vanishing abruptly one day, but there is no evidence that they actually went on, no way of knowing that they are not simply choosing, for whatever reason, not to interact anymore with the living. One scholar, who devoted her life to the study of ghosts, asserted that the dead must simply 'let go,' whatever the bloody hell that means, whenever they are truly ready. Hermione tells Snape as much, and his frustration is a palpable thing.
Ronald Weasley's death is very sudden. Granger Apparates to the shack one day, and Severus knows that something is dreadfully wrong; she is haggard, her eyes dry but ringed with shadows. A fall, she tells him, scarcely able to get the words out before the tears come. A Bludger to the chest while he was coaching practice, and a fall from his broom that none of the players was quick enough to stop. "Not that it would have mattered," she gasps out, "the Healers said the Bludger likely k-killed him anyway-" She swipes at her face with the palms of her hands, her rings catching the light. "He was so young. Not as young as you were, of course, but…" She squeezes her eyes shut, shoulders shaking.
Severus reaches for her, then lets his hands fall, stunned and helpless in the face of her grief. She has come to him, and he cannot even put his arms around her. He aches, or imagines he does, aches in every molecule of his non-existent body as though it has been hit with the flu. The desire to touch her has never been so strong.
"I am so very sorry," he says - insipid, meaningless, stupid words, but they are all he has to offer.
Life without Ron is a strange adjustment. The first year or two are hard - harder, Hermione admits only to herself, feeling sick with guilt, than she might have imagined. The house is very quiet, and too neat. The children come around to see her more often than usual, popping in at odd hours with bags of takeaway. Harry and Ginny invite her over more often as well; Harry looks as though he has aged ten years since Ron's death. He has taken it harder than any of them.
There is a sort of fog enfolding Hermione like a quilt, a defense against having to think too much. What will you do now? people keep asking her, and she has no answer; if Ron hadn't died, she imagines they would have continued as they were until retirement, and then pottered about the house together in their old age, driving one another mad, for a few decades more. It hadn't been a very exciting plan, or even really a plan at all; in fact, if Hermione had allowed herself to think about it too much, she might have found the whole prospect rather bleak. But at least she wouldn't be facing it alone.
"Would you have wanted to keep teaching if you'd had the chance?" Granger asks one day, apropos of nothing. Severus raises his head from the book he is reading; she is curled in her armchair, a book of her own propped against her knees. She has been to see him more and more frequently since her husband's death. Severus had never before thought he would be grateful to Weasley for anything.
"You mean, would I have wanted to keep teaching if I'd died at Hogwarts like Binns?" Severus says dryly.
"Well - or if you hadn't died at all," Granger says, then adds, "Though I don't imagine you'd have given me the time of day, in that case, so -" She stops herself, flushing. "Not that I'm glad you died," she says quickly, "just…"
Severus laughs, laughs until his lungs, if he'd had lungs, would have been begging for air. "You're ridiculous," he says finally, but he is smiling when he says it, and is gratified when Granger smiles back. "And," he says, "I don't think you would have sought me out if I hadn't died."
She tips her head with another small smile, conceding the point. Severus imagines the room has grown quite warm.
"But no," he says. "I would not have wished to go on teaching, under any circumstances. Great gods, Granger, you were my student, you know as well as anyone how I hated it."
"What would you have rather done?"
He shrugs. "Potions in some other capacity, I suppose. I never really had the chance to think about it."
"Mmm." She closes her book over her index finger, marking her place.
"Why do you ask?"
"It's just - I've gone as far as I can go in my career. Actually, I went as far as I could long ago, and I've just been… stagnating, I guess, ever since. It's not… You were right, you know, when you told me I was a fool for working for the Ministry. For every piece of good legislation I manage to get before the Wizengamot, some other idiot manages to do something to set magical beings' rights back another two hundred years or so. I've done what I can to change my department so it's working for the rights of other beings rather than against them, but it feels so futile, and I didn't even - wouldn't let myself realize it until now."
Severus swallows his, "I told you so." Barely.
Granger sighs. "It's just… I imagined I'd be doing so much good. But I haven't, not really. Everything I've done can just as easily be undone by whoever comes after me. And even the things I have managed to get passed, well, they don't mean much in the face of everything I haven't. We still haven't recognized the centaurs' land rights. Gnomes have been declared an invasive species, for heaven's sake, just because they aren't native to England!" She lets out a humorless laugh. "'Brightest witch of her age,' indeed," she mutters.
Irritation blooms like deadly nightshade. "Then do something about it!" he snaps. "You're alive, you're healthy, you have a quick mind and few responsibilities - do you have any idea what I would do to be in your position?"
She looks at him, clearly startled, crimson blotches forming on her cheeks as though his words had hit her like a slap. Then she nods, one short, quick bob of her head, and leaves.
"I don't want a new career," Hermione announces the next time she goes to see Snape. It is a chilly day, and she clutches the edges of her cloak tightly against her body, both for warmth and the illusion of armor. Snape glances up at her from his position at the window; he seems to have been watching a group of vultures circling in the air a few miles away.
"All right," he says.
"But you're right." She steps closer to him, watches the way the faint sunlight filters through his body. "I am… lucky. And the woe-is-me routine… well, I'm sorry." More than sorry, she is embarrassed; that sort of self-pity isn't like her, or it didn't used to be. Snape's words had echoed in her head all night; she kept seeing her situation from his perspective, and going all prickly-hot-mortified. Ron is gone, but she is still here, and really, when did Ron have anything to do with her accomplishments, anyway? The thought brought with it its own fleeting guilt, but Hermione mentally pushed it aside, because it was true, dammit; she'd loved Ron and he'd loved her, but what he hadn't loved was her propensity to focus so thoroughly on her work.
So, yes: She's still here, and, as she is a witch, she is likely to be here for some time, yet. And perhaps with age has come wisdom, for she has realized that she has no desire to subject herself to anything like an apprenticeship at her time of life; she doesn't feel the need to prove her worth with test scores or praise from her instructors. She knows her own mind, and she knows what it is capable of; that's enough.
Snape waves away her apology, looking faintly discomfited. "No matter," he says.
"But it does matter." Hermione finds that she is twisting her fingers together and forces her hands to still. "I do want more… satisfaction, intellectually. And from what you said yesterday… I mean, well, like I just said, I want something interesting to wrap my brain around, and then you said…" She shrugs, and her eyes flick to Snape and she notices that his eyes are fixed on her and he is going through the motions of swallowing, though swallowing what is the question; perhaps it is a leftover habit from his time among the living. Fascinating.
She gives herself a mental shake. Focus, Hermione.
"I should have… I mean, I knew that a few books and some records weren't enough for someone like you," she says, and Snape interrupts her before she can say anything else.
"What do you - Granger, have you any idea what those things have meant to me?" His voice is hoarse. "I'd have gone mad - utterly mad - without them. I was… I could feel my brain, my self starting to… dissolve, to fly apart, to… You cannot know - do not belittle what you have done for me. It is more than anyone else…" He closes his eyes, then opens them. "It is far more than I deserve."
"That's not true," she says hotly. "It isn't." She flaps a hand, impatient, to keep him from responding. "And besides, that's not the point, not at all - the point is that I would like to do some work, on my own time, on subjects that interest me and I wondered -" with a sideways glance at Snape "- if you would like to do it with me."
"If I - what?"
"Research. Maybe even writing papers. I want to do this for myself before my brain goes utterly rotten, but if we come up with something useful, I'd like to try to publish, or something; I want whatever I do to do some real good."
Snape frowns, more, perhaps, with confusion than anything. "Research into what, precisely?" "I have no idea." She grins and claps her hands together. "It can be anything we want! Anything at all. Even Potions, if that's what you'd like - I'd have to do the practical bits, but with you working out the theory it should be…"
Hermione trails off when she notices Snape's expression; his mouth has dropped slightly open and he is staring at her with something akin to befuddlement. "What's wrong?" she asks, suddenly uncertain.
He shakes his head, very slowly. "Nothing," he says, and there is a note of uncertainty in his voice, as well. "It is simply that I am… stunned and… honored that you wish to include me in this." He looks away from her, strangely vulnerable.
Hermione gives him what she hopes is a reassuring smile. "Who else?" she says.
Time passes very quickly then, or so it seems to Severus. Granger is at the shack more often than not when she is not at the Ministry. She sits cross-legged in the middle of the floor, surrounded by books and parchments; Severus is put strongly in mind of her as a student, bent over her workbench in his classroom, hair going wild from the Potions fumes and forehead furrowed as she stirred and chopped and triple-checked her notes with a sort of mania. The hair is mostly grey now, a fact that never ceases to startle Severus when he notices it, but the energy and enthusiasm are the same, and there is something distinctly girlish about her as she chews on the end of her quill, scowling with concentration. Behind her, against one wall, is their makeshift Potions lab, flasks and cauldrons and even a very fine glass stirring rod that she presented to Severus as a gift at Christmas. ("Of course, it's as much for me as it is for you," she'd said with a cheeky smile, running the pads of her fingers over the rod's smooth, rounded surface. Severus' own fingers itched in response, or they did at least in his mind, on which the sensation of cool glass under his fingertips was deeply imprinted).
"What about something less reactive than Ashwinder eggs?" she says now. "I mean, a chicken egg contains the protein necessary to sustain a… but no, it's not magical, that's stupid…"
Severus' lips quirk up at the corners, and he looks at her out of the corner of his eye. It took awhile, but by now he has long since grown accustomed to Granger's habit of speaking aloud to no one in particular when she is working through a puzzle.
When the first acceptance letter comes, for a paper they wrote about their experiments into Transfiguring potions, Hermione can hardly contain herself; she Apparates to the shack before the owl who delivered it has even had time to fly off, and she only realizes that perhaps she ought to have dressed herself properly when she sees Snape's amused expression. Flushed with both excitement and embarrassment, she draws her dressing gown more firmly across her body with one hand and with the other, holds the letter out so he can read it.
"They took it!" she says before he has had time to read more than the first sentence or two. "They're publishing our paper! Here - did you see where the editor calls it a 'unique and innovative approach'?"
"He does, indeed," Snape says, eyes flicking rapidly over the letter. His lips stretch into what can only be called a grin.
Hermione feels her own smile slip a little. "It should be published under both our names," she says. She reaches out a hand as though to lay it on his forearm, and shivers when her fingers pass right through him. "I wish you'd reconsider - I wish you'd let me -" "No," he says, without raising his eyes from the parchment.
"I thought I saw my parents the other day," Granger says out of the blue. It is a grey and drizzly day, rain pattering against the roof. They had both ostensibly been reading, but Severus had noticed that Granger wasn't turning any pages, her expression abstracted.
"Did you?" he says cautiously. She has rarely mentioned her parents at all over the years; Severus has sometimes wondered whether she ever stopped looking for them.
"Yeah." She closes her book. It looks as though she might be trying to smile, though she is blinking rapidly. "I was walking through Piccadilly Market - sometimes I find magical things there for hardly anything, things the Muggles must think are junk - and there was this couple ahead of me, stopped at a baker's booth. It was… it was the man's coat I noticed first. It looked like my dad's, the one he'd had for years. Green. Mum bought it for him, for his birthday, I think; she said it brought out his eyes." She sniffs, looks down at her lap. "And then the woman, she was bent over the booth, picking through the loaves, and her hair -" She breaks off and closes her eyes. "Her hair was my mum's hair. The style, the texture… and in profile, I was so sure it was her. For a moment. I was so sure."
Severus doesn't know what to say. He watches her, helpless, as she swipes at her cheeks with the backs of her hands.
"I nearly ran up to them. My heart was pounding - I actually thought I might have a heart attack. And then they turned so they were facing me and they looked nothing like my parents. Nothing at all. It was like - it was like being hit with a Stunner. I couldn't move, I couldn't - I just stood there, in people's way, and watched them walk past me. And the best part is, it wasn't until I got home that I …"
She pauses for so long that Severus says, "That you what?"
Granger looks at him. "There's a mirror in my foyer. It has - it's attached to hooks, for cloaks and hats and… things. I caught my reflection in it when I got home, while I was unwrapping my scarf, and it hit me - that couple, the one I saw - they couldn't have been more than forty-five or so. Decades younger than I am. I've been…" She looks beseeching. "I thought they were my parents, for heaven's sake, and the absurdity of it is they could have been my children." Another pause, and then, "It's embarrassing to admit, but I hadn't realized, until that moment, that even if they were still alive after the war, and I just couldn't find them, even if they lived out the rest of their lives as Wendell and Monica… they must have been dead now for a very long time."
"I am sorry," Severus says, and hates himself for his predictable inadequacy. He moves nearer to her, longing to touch her and knowing he cannot.
Granger looks up at him. She wears her hair tied back now, almost all the time; it is thinning at her temples, but this only makes it easier to see her eyes. The rest of her is fading, slowly; her skin growing pale and papery, her body curving inwards, her spine succumbing, finally, to the weight of many years spent hunched over books and parchment, her hair changing from the dark, almost severe grey of her middling years to a soft white that makes Severus think of dandelions gone to seed. But her eyes have not changed, still dark and sharply focused, and if Severus had breath to steal, it would be squeezed out of him by the intensity of her gaze just then. She leans forward, just a little, until her cheek is resting against his; he cannot feel her touch, but he hears her little indrawn breath at the contact, and her narrow shoulders shudder. Then she turns her head and - he thinks, but he cannot be sure because she is so very close to him and he cannot feel anything, dammit, and never in all his life has he wanted something as badly as he wants, right now, to be able to feel - brushes her mouth across the ghost of his.
Ginny passes away one spring, and Lily takes Harry, whose memory has been unreliable for years now, to live with her and her family in Surrey. That winter, Hermione is unsurprised when an owl arrives bearing news of her friend's death, for Harry had seemed utterly lost without Ginny, anxious and childlike. She stands for a long time, the letter hanging limply from her hand, gazing out the window without taking in anything she is seeing.
The next day she tells Snape about Harry's death, after spending much of the night lying awake wondering whether it might be kinder to keep the news to herself. But, she thinks, he has a right to know, and she watches his face after she tells him, his eyes stunned, his mouth tight at the corners. He is very quiet for the rest of the afternoon; she cannot guess his thoughts.
Their research into Memory Charms, begun at Severus' insistence despite Granger's clear reluctance to fiddle with such things again, becomes a project that keeps them occupied for several years, spawning two papers that are published in The London Charms Journal. Their work begins as purely academic, Granger being too squeamish to entertain the notion of modifying the memories of even well-paid research volunteers, but eventually even she has to admit that all the well-researched hypotheses in the world are worth nothing without practical evidence to back them up. Severus is strangely proud the day she tells him she has rented lab space from the Wizarding division of the University of London, complete with an expensive and hard-to-come-by Pensieve. He throws his efforts into further book research; it is obvious that Granger's uncertainty as to whether or not she could have retrieved her parents' memories successfully, is a question that will haunt her always, never to be dispelled, is a question that will haunt her always, and Severus finds himself rather frantically determined to help her lay those particular ghosts, so to speak, to rest.
Granger works doggedly writing up their findings, though as time passes she tends to fall asleep over her work more and more often, sometimes slipping into a light doze while Severus is talking.
By the time their second paper on the topic has been published, Severus knows it will be their last.
One day, Hermione wakes, fully intending to go about her usual routine - bathe, dress, eat some toast with jam and drink a cup or two of tea before going to the shack to see Snape - but finds that she cannot quite muster the energy. She has to stop and sit down in the chair beside her bed after she has put on her trousers and blouse, her feet still bare. She thinks she must have nodded off for a bit, for the sun seems a good bit higher in the sky when next she looks out the window. With a bit of effort, she manages to put on her socks and boots, though negotiating the stairs feels like an enormous task, and she has to rest again at the bottom. The thought of food, or even tea, is unappealing; she thinks, lowering herself onto the bench beside the front door, that perhaps she'll just rest her eyes for a minute or two longer.
When she wakes, it is because Hugo has come in the door, a bag of groceries over one shoulder. He seems startled to see her sitting there, though perhaps not as startled as Hermione is, herself, to realize that it is early evening, the time he and Rose generally take it in turns to check in on her each day. How had that happened? she wonders fuzzily, and barely manages a reassuring, "I'm fine, love, just a bit tired today," in response to Hugo's concerned questions before she feels herself slipping away once again.
Hermione has not avoided thoughts of her own mortality as she has grown older, but still she finds herself rather surprised to realize that she is dying. She thinks that this ought to bother her more than it does, but she is so very tired, and everything feels rather at a remove. At least one or the other, though often both, of her children are by her side whenever she wakes, and she thinks with a hazy fondness that they are, truly, quite dear. But mostly she drifts in and out of consciousness like Snape drifting through the shack's empty rooms.
She thinks of Snape, quite suddenly, one moment between sleeping and waking, sees his face before her as clearly as though she is with him, and she opens her eyes with a start to find herself reaching out before her with trembling fingers.
"I'll come live here, with you," she'd said to him, not so very long ago. Only weeks earlier, perhaps. "Don't be absurd," he said. "What would you tell your children?" "To come visit me here when I'm dead." His eyes were wide and frantic, and she felt a twist of something bittersweet under her breastbone. "Don't you dare," he said, but his voice cracked unconvincingly on the last syllable.
"Don't be absurd," he said. "What would you tell your children?"
"To come visit me here when I'm dead."
His eyes were wide and frantic, and she felt a twist of something bittersweet under her breastbone. "Don't you dare," he said, but his voice cracked unconvincingly on the last syllable.
"Rose," Hermione says, opening her eyes to find her daughter watching her. Rose's bright hair has faded with age, and she looks, Hermione thinks, remarkably like Molly. Rose leans forward.
"What is it, Mum?" she says.
"There is something I have to tell you," Hermione says. The words seem to take longer to form than they should, but it is worth the effort it takes to speak because she is certain, at this moment, after all these years, that she must no longer remain silent.
Severus watches the woman ascend the hill from Hogsmeade. Her head is bowed against the wind, and her hands are thrust deep in the pockets of Granger's baggy brown cardigan. It has been, he thinks, more than a week since Granger was last here, and Severus knew, he bloody well knew that her absence - she hasn't been away this long since Weasley's death - could only mean one thing. But it's still a shock, so profound that he nearly feels it pummel him in the chest, stunned by the almost-physicality of his reaction. For this woman, taller than Granger but with the same deliberate gait, would not be here unless Granger could not be.
"Professor Snape?" she says when she opens the shack's door. Her eyes find him among the shadows, where he is making no attempt to hide. If he were alive, he would be shaking all over.
"Is she dead?" he says before his courage fails him.
Though she looks little like her mother, the woman - Rose - must have the same quickness of mind, for she does not bother with introductions, and though her eyes are wet her voice is even when she says, "Yes. I'm so sorry."
Severus looks away, at the bookshelves Granger erected, the framed print of Potions ingredients, the neatly cleaned and mended curtains. The dust will return in force, soon, he thinks.
A moment passes, during which Severus endures Granger's daughter's scrutiny, and wishes her gone. Then she says, "My mother - she didn't tell anyone else, and I won't either, unless you want me to. She wanted to make sure you knew that. And she told me about the charms she has in place here." She pauses. "I would be very happy to keep them going for you, and to keep bringing you books. If you'd like."
"Thank you," Severus says; his voice sounds very unfamiliar and rather far away. "That is very kind of you."
"She didn't suffer at the end," she says. "It was very peaceful."
The sound that emerges from Severus' throat would have mortified him, not so long ago.
"Can I do anything?" Rose asks at last, and Severus forces himself to look at her. The look on her face is so reminiscent of her mother - a burning curiosity mingled with sympathy - that he has to look away again.
"No," he says, and then, again, "thank you."
"Of course," she says, reluctance clear in her voice, but she turns to go. "I'll come again soon."
After she is gone, despite the futility of the effort, Severus tries very hard to find release in tears. Dimly, he wonders what exactly Granger told her daughter about him. About them.
Finally, he drifts through the wall, unable to bear the closeness of the inside of the shack with all its reminders of her. He closes his eyes, feeling as though he is at the end of a fraying tether that could, quite easily, break; and then, for a blissful time, he feels nothing at all.
It is night when Severus comes to himself again, and the stars are brilliant against the vast purple sky. He feels empty, and very calm. The stars remind him of Dumbledore's robes, and he thinks he might have smirked but for the strange heaviness that seems to have settled over his form when he was… elsewhere. He cannot twitch so much as a finger. The realization is not as alarming as perhaps it should be.
Somewhere out there, Dumbledore actually is. As is Severus' mam, and his grandparents, and his school-days tormentors, and the man who styled himself Lord Voldemort. Lily is there, too, a thought that once filled Severus with fear but that now does not bother him very much at all.
And Granger. Granger is out there. The knowledge comforting, even if he does not know precisely where 'there' is. His reason for staying in this dreadful place for so long is suddenly quite clear, and he thinks, how like Granger, despite her brilliance, to overlook something so obvious.
Severus pretends to inhale, and for the first time since his death his chest actually seems to swell as his lungs fill with air. The sensation makes him feel, for the briefest of instants, very much alive, and is so unexpected that his eyes fly open. All he can see before him is the sky, rushing closer.
He exhales his breath, and lets go.