Lacey slammed her copy of Unfogging the Future down onto the kitchen table and folded her arms. "I hate Divination," she said, glaring at the book like a basilisk.
Hermione, who was proofreading the galleys of her latest paper on Arithmancy at the opposite end of the table, looked up at her daughter. For a moment her heart caught in amazement at this remarkable little being that she and Severus had created: a merging of his dark intensity and her loving nature. "Not that I necessarily wanted a Seer in the family, but why do you hate it?" she asked.
The girl scowled, dark hair swinging across her face. "It's stupid."
Hermione laughed. "Could you be more specific?"
"It's nothing but a lot of woolly guesswork. Professor McGonagall says so."
"Lachesis Jean Snape!" Hermione said in astonishment. "I'm quite certain Minerva said no such thing. She would never criticize another professor's specialty so rudely."
Lacey flushed guiltily. "Well, no, she didn't say that exactly. But she did say that Divination is one of the most imprecise branches of magic. Which is the same thing, isn't it? Only politer?"
Hermione suppressed a smile and Severus, his nose buried in the latest proceedings from the International Society of Potioneers, made a sound remarkably like a snort. "Similar," she admitted, "but not quite the same thing, no."
Lacey pushed the textbook away from herself with the tip of one finger. "Well, whatever it is, I want to drop it. We did tea leaves right before the end of term and mine could have been about sixty different things. What's the point of that, when you can just pick which meaning you want?"
"I think you should at least finish out this term -- just because you don't like it right away is no reason to give up on it. And there are lots of kinds of Divination: crystal ball, rune-casting, prophecy. Maybe one of the others will be more interesting to you."
"Did you like Divination, Mum?" Lacey asked.
Hermione focused her attention on tidying the stack of papers in front of her. "I, er, enrolled in it, yes." She laid the Editing Quill on top of the pile.
"But did you like it?" her daughter insisted.
At this Severus lowered his journal. "Your mother adored Divination," he said with a smirk. "I seem to recall--"
"Oh, hush," Hermione said in irritation, getting up from the table. "No, I didn't like it. In fact I dropped it."
"Why?" Lacey was intrigued. It was hard to imagine her mother not liking anything to do with school.
"Oh, I thought it was a bit ridiculous, like you. And I had lots of other courses I wanted to take." Hermione slid the pile of galleys and quill into a drawer, remembering Sybill Trelawney's face, round eyes behind enormous glasses. From the moment you arrived in this class, my dear, it has been apparent that you do not have what the noble art of Divination requires. Indeed, I don't remember ever meeting a student whose mind was so mundane... Hermione shoved the drawer closed with unnecessary force. "And the Professor said I didn't have the knack for it."
Lacey stared at her. "But mum, you're good at everything. Isn't she, dad?"
Severus nodded. "Oh, yes. Very much so." He paused a moment, then added, "In fact she turned out later to be rather good at Divination. Or at least one branch of it."
"Severus," Hermione said warningly.
"Was it runes? Because that has lots of maths in it."
"No, not runes. She made a prophecy."
"Mum made a prophecy? A real one? That came true?" Lacey said, her eyes huge with astonishment. She looked from one parent to another, her father smiling slightly, her mother frowning. "What was it about?"
"About herself. And me."
"And me, of course," Lacey added.
Severus laughed at his daughter's complacent assumption that her parents' lives had always included her very important self. "No, you didn't enter into it. Although without it you might not be here."
"Honestly, Severus, I don't know why you would bring this up now. You know how I feel about it." Without a backward glance Hermione left the kitchen, radiating anger.
Lacey got up from her chair and came around the table to press close to her father. "Why is Mummy upset?"
Severus put an arm around his daughter. "Well, for one thing, when you prophesy, it's like something else speaking through you. Something else controlling your voice, your body. A true Seer learns to accept this. They become comfortable with releasing control when they sense the moment of prophecy coming upon them. But when it happens just once, out of the blue, as it did with your mother, it's...frightening."
Lacey frowned. "Like somebody making you do something you don't want to do."
Severus gave his daughter a wry smile, thinking of his own experience with unwilling obedience. "Exactly. And then there's the fact that no one knows how prophecy works, especially when it happens to a non-Seer. You know how your mother likes to think that everything can be understood? Well, some things can't. And that's frightening too."
They heard a footstep behind them and turned to see Hermione standing in the doorway, her face stricken. "It isn't just that," she whispered. She went to stand behind her husband and put her arms around him, clasping her hands on his chest. "It's knowing how close I came to losing you. To not knowing what I had to do, all because of one little word." She pressed her lips to his hair. "How many prophecies are never fulfilled because people misunderstand them, mistake their meaning?"
Severus raised Hermione's clasped hands to his lips and kissed them. "Don't be afraid, little otter," he smiled. "I think it's time we told someone else the story. And who better than our daughter?"
Hermione took a deep breath. "All right. But we tell it together, your part as well as mine?" He bowed his head in acknowledgement, so she sat down, took her husband's hand in her left and their daughter's hand in her right, and began.
She stepped forward to stand beneath the trapdoor with the brass plaque reading "Sybill Trelawney, Divination." A silvery ladder descended and with a sigh Hermione began to climb. If she didn't want to look at the Astronomia Nova so badly, she'd never have set foot in the North Tower again. But Professor Sinistra had loaned the school's only copy to Professor Trelawney, and when the Astronomy teacher suggested that Hermione stop by Sybill's classroom and and pick it up, Hermione had been unable to come up with a reasonable excuse. So here she was.
At the top she stepped off the ladder into the familiar chintz-filled room, dim, stuffy, smelling of incense. Shelves of crystal balls and teacups of various sizes lined the walls. On a small round table nearby a pack of Tarot cards lay face down, with a single card turned up: the Wheel of Fortune.
"Professor Trelawney?" she called. Really, you'd think the woman would have known company was coming, if she was any kind of a proper--
"Yes, dear?" came a voice immediately to her right.
Hermione jumped as what she had taken for a patchwork blanket thrown untidily onto a couch sat up and gazed at her through enormous eyeglasses, like a puzzled owl. Strings of glass beads striped and spotted in red, green, blue and white hung around the figure's scrawny neck.
"Aaaahhh...I...I came to get a book," Hermione stammered.
Professor Trelawney eyed her suspiciously. "A book? If you wish to replace your copy of Unfogging the Future, I am afraid I have none to spare for any except serious students of the Art."
"No, not that book..." The stuffiness of the room seemed to be increasing; between that and her reaction to Trelawney's sudden greeting Hermione's heart was racing uncomfortably. "I wanted..." What did she want? She couldn't recall; her mind felt slow and stupid.
"My dear? Are you unwell?" Professor Trelawney's voice sounded tinny, faraway.
The room seemed to be shrinking, but at the same time the Wheel of Fortune card seemed to have lifted off the table, coming towards her, growing until it loomed enormous before her face. Slowly it began to spin, and from somewhere a low, harsh voice began to speak...
Hermione slowly opened her eyes and blinked in confusion. The room looked strange, off-kilter, until she realized she was lying on her side on the floor. Professor Trelawney hovered over her, mouth an O of surprise.
"What...what happened?" Hermione managed to croak out. Her throat felt raw, as though she had been screaming or shouting for a long time.
"A prophecy!" Professor Trelawney said happily, patting her arm so excitedly that her beads rattled. "A True Seeing! My dear, you were wonderful, simply wonderful! I had no idea you...perhaps I was too hasty in my...well, one can never tell with...and yet I was so sure, or no perhaps I did have a slight sense of...because obviously..."
Hermione sat up, wincing. "Don't be ridiculous, Professor. That's impossible." Her arm ached; she must have struck something when she fell. Yes, the table with the Tarot cards had been knocked over and the cards were scattered -- all except the Wheel of Fortune, which was clutched tightly in her hand. Fear washed over her and she dropped it with an exclamation.
Professor Trelawney drew herself up indignantly. "I assure you, Miss Granger, I am capable of recognizing a true Seeing when I, er, see one. We must get a Record made immediately so that it can be filed at the Ministry. Let me see, let me see, it will be H...what is your middle name, dear?"
"Jean," Hermione replied numbly. She had made a prophecy? How could that be?
"It will be ‘H.J.G. to S.P.T.' of course, but the subject..." She tapped a long bony finger against her nose thoughtfully, then recited softly: "A snake, a Prince, a death; No one there to grieve him. Alone at last as he was at first, Even his memories leave him."
"Is that what I said?" Hermione whispered, horrified at the thought that something had spoken through her. Taken her over. Possessed her...
Trelawney nodded, beads swinging wildly. "Yes, yes, that was it. Well, part of it. There was a bit more, something about adders. A snake, a Prince, a death, now what could that mean, I wonder? Snakes and adders, obviously one thinks of Slytherin House, but--"
"It doesn't mean anything. I don't believe you -- you're making it up. You just want to prove me wrong, trying to prove your stupid Divination works. Stop it! Let me go, please, let me go!" She scrambled to her feet and ran for the ladder, Trelawney's voice trailing after her.
Hermione and Severus exchanged a rueful glance. "Quirrell," she said.
Severus raised an eyebrow. "And...myself?" he said in a gently mocking tone.
Hermione smiled at him, knowing the memories he carried. "Never."
"So then what happened?" Lacey interrupted impatiently. "Did you tell anybody about it?"
Hermione shook her head. "Not one single person. Not even Uncle Harry or Uncle Ron. I just wanted to forget about it."
She frowned. "Then how did dad find out about it?"
"Professor Trelawney was rather proud of her new discovery," Severus said. "And of course there was one word that caught my attention..."
He reached the head table and with a brusque nod at Dumbledore took the first open seat. Too late, he realized Sybill Trelawney was to his right and his heart sank at the thought of being the recipient of her crackpot theories for the next two hours. Fortunately she was nattering on at Flitwick on her other side at the moment -- something about a student who had fainted in her rooms the day before -- so perhaps he'd be spared her attention. Given the emptiness of the plates and the two, no, three, wine glasses in front of her, she was more interested in the Inner Stomach than the Inner Eye. Severus filled his own wine glass (thank Merlin for the quality of Hogwarts' cellars) and resigned himself to another long, dull evening.
"…but the mention of a prince is curious, since of course the Wizarding world has no royalty. It could be a foreigner, I suppose--"
Severus started, almost spilling his glass. "What did you say, Sybill?"
She turned towards him, delighted to have a new audience. "Oh, Professor Snape! I was just telling Professor Flitwick about this remarkable prophecy made here at Hogwarts yesterday, in my very own classroom too. And the Granger chit, the last person I would have expected."
"Granger?? Impossible." The girl was far too practical, too intelligent to suffer from fainting and visions.
"I thought so too, which only goes to show how the Inner Eye can be deceived. Do you know, she actually said that Divination was–"
He waved her off impatiently. It didn't matter who made the prophecy; what mattered was whether it concerned himself. "The prince, Sybill," he interrupted. "What about a prince?"
She leaned towards him, her eyes slightly unfocused. "Well, who knows? It was just three words together: A snake, a Prince, a death. It's very unclear. Does the snake kill the Prince, or the Prince the snake? Or perhaps death takes them both."
A chill traveled down Severus' back as if someone were trickling icewater down his spine. The name he had been born with, the title he had given himself. How many people knew or remembered he was the son of Eileen Prince? And the snake -- was it Voldemort? Nagini? He had to know. "Just three words? That was the entire prophecy?"
"No no no no no, there was more, of course. A nice long one." She took a loud slurp of wine. "But I don't remember the rest. There was something about snakes and adders, clearly about Slytherin House. Or perhaps another basilisk. It's all fading away, of course, they always do once the Prophecy Record has been made."
Severus let out a long, slow breath. "The prophecy is already on record at the Ministry, then. I can request to see it." But no -- if he made a formal request it would be logged at the Department of Mysteries and that would bring attention to it, the last thing he wanted if indeed it concerned himself. He would have to find another way...
"Oh yes, I filed it with the Department of Mysteries myself this morning using a pensieve to ensure the words were right. ‘H.J.G. to S.P.T. -- subject(s) unknown.' But of course only Miss Granger can listen to it." She tittered. "Or perhaps a snake."
"Incorrect," Severus said with mock severity. "Fifty points from Ravenclaw."
"You can't take points," Lacey objected. "You're not a Professor any more."
He scowled at her and she giggled. "Regardless, you did not pay attention. Once a Prophecy Record is shelved in the Hall of Prophecy, it can be removed from its place only by the Keeper of the Hall, by the subject of the prophecy, or by the person who made the prophecy. And although anyone can command a Prophecy Record to play, only the subject of the prophecy can hear it."
"But you didn't know for sure it was about you, so you couldn't take the chance of getting it yourself," she pointed out.
"I'm glad to see you have inherited my aptitude for sound logic," Severus said smugly. "You are correct. Reason it out, then, and tell me what I did."
Lacey frowned, thinking out loud. "Well...if you didn't want people to know about it, you couldn't ask the Keeper. Mum didn't remember what she'd said because you don't when you do a prophecy. And like I said, you couldn't get it for yourself because you didn't know for sure it was about you." She sat in silence for a moment and Hermione could almost see the wheels turning under the dark hair, then her face brightened. "You took mum with you!" she said triumphantly.
Severus nodded approvingly. "Exactly so."
"Miss Granger. I should like to speak to you for a moment."
Taking a deep breath, she re-entered the now-empty classroom. "Yes, sir?"
Snape stood in front of his desk, hands behind his back, his face showing nothing of why he had called her back. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it, and she realized with a shock that he was actually at a loss for words. "Sir?"
He waved her impatiently to a table and she sat obediently. "Miss Granger, I understand that you recently made a prophecy."
She flushed. Professor Snape, of all people -- logical, cool, unemotional Snape -- to be asking her about this embarrassing nonsense. "Professor Trelawney said so, sir, but I don't think so. I wasn't feeling well, and I just got dizzy for a minute. I'm sure Professor Trelawney thinks it was real," she added hastily. "But it wasn't."
Snape held her with his black gaze for a long moment. "Miss Granger, believe me when I say that Divination is not a field of study I admire, but I am sufficiently conversant with it to know the requirements for the recording of a prophecy with the Department of Mysteries. A fictitious prophecy cannot be converted into a Prophecy Record. The glass will shatter."
Hermione gave a sigh of relief. "That's good to know, sir. So when Professor Trelawney tries to register my so-called prophecy, it won't work and I can forget all about it."
"You misunderstand me. She has already recorded the prophecy. Successfully."
Hermione stared at him in disbelief. "So it was real?" She shivered, repelled at the memory of a voice that was not her own speaking from her throat.
"So it seems. I need to know the content of that prophecy. You will tell me. Now."
Hermione stared at him, every sense suddenly alert. She and Harry and Ron had had so many arguments about whether this man was trustworthy; all her instincts told her that he was, yet she could not point to any firm evidence. "Why do you need to know?"
He began to pace, black robes swishing around him. "That is not your concern."
"It's my prophecy," she said hotly. "It certainly is my concern. Sir."
He stopped and glared at her. "Cheek. Fifty points from Gryffindor. Tell me."
She was about to challenge him, refuse, but something in his voice -- an urgency, a desperation -- stopped her. "I can't," she said. "I don't remember saying it. Professor Trelawney recited it once, right after, but I wasn't listening. Something about snakes and adders, and a heart. That's all I remember."
He resumed pacing. "Very well. Then we will go to the Department of Mysteries and listen to it there."
Hermione was never able to recall their journey clearly, so befuddled was she at the odd sensation of leaving school, without permission and with the dreaded Professor Snape. She had been afraid he would mock her for her nervousness, her inability to remember a prophecy she herself had spoken, even for her acquiescence to his wishes when Harry and Ron so clearly distrusted and disliked him. But he said little, other than to suggest she bring a heavy coat since the night was cold and they would have to walk far enough off the grounds that he could take her via Side-Along Apparition. He was silent as they walked; preoccupied, she thought, but with what? The next Death Eater meeting? Some secret mission for Dumbledore? Impossible to know. She would have to trust her heart.
The Keeper of the Hall of Mysteries recognized Snape as a Hogwarts Professor and waved them in, although he raised a questioning eyebrow at Hermione. She gave him a faint smile and tried to look like she was supposed to be there.
The Hall of Prophecy was one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen, rank upon rank of shelves filled with spun-glass globes that glowed softly in dusty shades of blue and silver, rose and gold, the smoke within them moving on unseen winds. "So many," she marveled. "Where do they all come from? I thought true Seers were rare!"
"They are," Snape replied as he led her down one of the central aisles. "They are also, some of them, rather prolific. But even if they made only two prophecies a year, thousands of years are collected here."
Some of the globes were dark, she noticed. "What are the ones that look different?"
"Dead ones," he said, then at her blank look added, "Prophecies whose time has passed without coming true." He glanced at the end of each side aisle in turn as they walked, looking for a particular location.
"I thought all prophecies came true," she said in surprise, and was even more surprised when he smiled.
"I used to think so too. But no, many do not, for one reason or another. Free will, accident, mistake. A prophecy only documents a possibility. Someone -- Muggle or human, animal, vegetable or mineral -- still has to act to make it happen." He stopped. "Here."
In the center of the shelf, at eye level, was a small crystal globe labeled "H.J.G. to S.P.T., 15 Feb 1994 – subject unknown."
"Take it," Snape said. "I cannot. Only the subject of the prophecy, or the prophet him or herself, may remove it from its place."
Hesitantly, Hermione reached out and took the Prophecy Record from the shelf, cradling it in both hands. It felt warm to her touch, as though it were alive. She looked up at Snape. "Now what?" she whispered.
He held out his hand. "Give it to me. We will see if I can hear it."
"Do you think it's about you, then, sir? What makes you think so?"
He closed his eyes. "Miss Granger. Please."
It was the please that touched her, made her gently tip the crystal sphere into his waiting hand. In all her years at Hogwarts this man had bullied, argued, mocked, taken points, and only grudgingly admitted it when she was correct. He had never once said "Please." She wondered suddenly what drove him, what had carved the lines of bitterness into his face.
She watched as he bent over the sphere and whispered a phrase she did not catch. There was a moment of silence, and then a voice barely recognizable as her own, rough and distorted, whispered harshly in the still air:
A snake, a Prince, a death;
No one there to grieve him.
Alone at last as he was at first,
Even his memories leave him.
A chance, a hope, a gift:
The adder alone can save him.
Once dead but now he lives
With the heart the adder gave him.
"Sir? Did...did you hear it, sir?"
He shook his head. "No," he rasped. "No, I heard nothing." He shoved the sphere back into her hands and ran his fingers through his hair, his face twisted with emotion.
She wondered what he had been hoping to hear, that he would look so crushed by disappointment. "Would you like me to tell you what it said?" she asked hesitantly. She turned away to replace the crystal sphere gently on the shelf. "I think I memorized it all."
An iron hand on her arm made her cry out in surprise and pain as Snape jerked her around to face him. "You heard it? You?"
"Yes," she said, bewildered. "I made it. Of course I heard it."
He stared at her, black eyes so wide she thought for a dizzy moment she was falling into them, then he shoved her away. "Enough. We must return to school."
Severus laughed. "Lacey, do you really think your mother ever did not listen in class?"
"Yes, I'd hate to have my reputation as a swot imperiled." Hermione waved her wand gently to cast a warming charm on her tea. "Remember I told you I dropped Divination? Well, I dropped it well before they got to prophecies. So I never learned that bit of information."
"When did you figure it out?"
"Not until the next year, when the Death Eaters tried to steal the prophecy about your Uncle Harry and Voldemort." She saw again Lucius Malfoy's face contorted with fury, demanding the globe from Harry so that Voldemort could listen to the prophecy, find a way to defeat him. "And even then, all I knew was that since I'd heard it, it must be about me. I didn't know it was about your father. And I don't know why you thought pretending you hadn't heard it would do any good," she added, fixing her husband with a severe gaze. "You must have known I'd figure it out eventually."
"Eventually," he agreed. "But admit it: had you known it concerned me, you would have been after it like a Niffler until you unearthed my part in it. And I was...reluctant to let you know that you had just predicted my death. Worrying about Harry and Ron seemed sufficient unto the day, as it were."
"True. I certainly did worry about them." She hesitated. "Severus, I'm not sure we should go on."
Lacey stared at her, incredulous. "You can't stop NOW, mum."
"But the rest of it--"
Lacey heaved a long-suffering sigh and rolled her eyes. "Mum, I've read Hogwarts: A History, Expanded Edition. We study what you and dad did in school, for Merlin's sake. And Uncle Harry and everyone else. It's not like I don't know all the bad parts already. Or most of them, anyway. All of this, this is the good part."
"She's right, you know," Severus said softly. "This is the good part. Because it's about how you saved me."
Hermione flushed. "All right."
Lacey settled back into her chair, a satisfied look on her face. "So what did you do when you got back?"
"I," said Severus, "began brewing the most potent anti-venom potions I could devise."
"Because of the snake."
He nodded gravely. "Because, as you say, of the snake. So you see, your mother's prophecy was already starting to work."
Hermione looked at him, startled. "I never thought of that."
He smiled faintly. "Did you not? I did. From that moment on, every potion I drank to strengthen myself, I thought of you. Though I certainly never thought I would have the opportunity to tell you so."
"But it said an adder would save you," Lacey said, puzzled.
"Patience, child," he said, his eyes locked on Hermione's, both of them remembering.
Lacey sighed. "Oh, all right. I suppose it will all make sense in the end. Go on, mum."
Hermione picked up the thread of the story. "Well, as I said, I found out the prophecy concerned myself during our fifth year, but I had no idea how. Nothing in it seemed to have anything to do with me -- snakes, hearts, it was all meaningless. Then the next year, your Uncle Harry found an old Potions textbook that belonged to somebody who called himself the Half-Blood Prince. It seemed a little too much to expect that we could coincidentally have two princes, so I began to wonder who this person was. And then, at the end of the year, I knew."
"Because you told Uncle Harry your nickname, the night you ran away from Hogwarts." Lacey looked at her father soberly. "That was the bad year, wasn't it, dad?"
Severus stroked her hair. "The beginning of it, yes." Death Eaters in the halls of Hogwarts. A flash of green light, Albus' body turning in the air as he fell. The horror and betrayal in Hermione's eyes. Had he seen that, or only imagined it?
"I read about it." Lacey looked down at the table, pushing a few crumbs into a neat line. "But that's just words on a page. You were really there. Both of you." She looked up at her father's face, her mother's. "Were you...were you scared?"
"Yes," Hermione admitted.
"Very," he agreed quietly.
"I was scared for your Uncle Harry and Ron. For Grandma Jean and Grandpa Hugo in Australia. Whether we'd be able to find the Horcruxes and do what we had to do. And underneath all that, I was afraid for your father, now that I understood his part in the prophecy but not mine." She smiled crookedly. "So you see, I had things to be afraid of, but a lot more people to be afraid for."
"I think being afraid for somebody would be worse," Lacey observed sagely. "I used to be afraid of the dark when I was little, but I'm not anymore."
"You are quite right," Severus nodded. "Things one is afraid of can be faced. Those whom one is afraid for, one can only hope they will be safe. I knew your mother was part of the prophecy but I could not see her role in it, and I feared for what might happen if...well. And of course, I was afraid that I wouldn't have the opportunity to get Harry the information he needed. Fortunately, he was there at just the right time. Also fortunately, your mother knows how to conjure a flask in a pinch."
A terrible rasping, gurgling noise issued from Snape's throat. "Take...it...Take...it..."
Something more than blood was leaking from Snape. Silvery blue, neither gas nor liquid, it gushed from his mouth and his ears and his eyes. Harry looked wildly from the dying man at his feet then back at her, not knowing what to do, and in that terrible moment, Hermione saw it clearly. A snake, a Prince, a death; No one there to grieve him. Alone at last as he was at first, Even his memories leave him."
But it wasn't true, she thought fiercely, even as she conjured a flask and thrust it at Harry. She wouldn't let it be true. She would grieve for him. In her heart she knew there was an explanation for the things he'd done, for all of it, and if so then no one deserved her grief more. She would prove her own prophecy wrong in this one tiny thing, and maybe that would be enough... She watched as Harry lifted the silvery stuff into the flask with his wand. When the flask was full to the brim, and Snape looked as though there was no blood left in him, his grip on Harry's robes slackened. He whispered something to Harry, and then the hand holding his thudded to the floor, and Snape moved no more.
Too late, she thought. I've failed somehow, I don't know how.
Voldemort's cold voice rang in their ears, and then they were crawling back through the tunnel, running across the green in front of the castle, through the gates into an eerily silent courtyard. Cautiously, then, the three of them went into the Great Hall and stopped appalled at the sight before them. The room was crowded with people, shocked white faces (but not as white as Snape's, a voice in her mind said mockingly, and why didn't you figure out how to use an adder to save him, stupid girl, you're supposed to be so smart), bloodstained bandages on arms, legs, heads. And oh, there was Tonks and beside her Remus...
"So many," Hermione whispered. She saw Ginny across the room and went towards her with Ron. Part of her mind registered that Harry was no longer with them, but Ginny's arms were clutching her and it was all she could do not to fall under the weight of the younger girl's grief. Finally Ginny let her go and they sat side by side, looking around the room.
"Where did you go?" Ginny said tiredly. "At the end? I looked for you -- thought I saw your otter but it was something else, a mink maybe..."
Ginny's words nudged at her tired mind. My otter. And then it burst blindingly on her: Not an adder, an otter! The guttural harshness of the voice had led Sybill to mistake it, and she and Severus -- expecting that word -- had heard it incorrectly themselves. But she should have known, should have guessed -- it was her own Patronus, for Merlin's sake. But how could that help?
"Ginny, I have to go…something I have to do…I'll be back, I promise--" In a matter of moments she was retracing their steps from just half an hour before across the lawn, waving her wand to press the knot on the willow, crawling through the tunnel and bursting back into the Shrieking Shack.
She halted only a moment, breathless, then fell to her knees beside Severus (she was thinking of him as Severus, she thought dimly, not "Snape"). Pressing her fingers onto his bloody throat, she felt a faint pulse -- he was still breathing! -- but even as hope leaped inside her his breathing hitched and his heartbeat began to stutter beneath her fingers.
The otter, she thought wildly. She focused every ounce of her being, waved her wand, and whispered "Expecto Patronum!"
A silvery otter coalesced in front of her, brighter than she'd ever seen it, and she realized that against all odds, she had conjured a corporeal Patronus. The otter gamboled about for a moment, then looked at her questioningly.
"Help him," she said softly, not even knowing what she was asking, knowing only that she could not, would not lose this man. "Please. Just...don't let him die. Not until I can give him a reason to live."
The otter twitched its whiskers, ambled over to Severus, and curled up into a silky coil on his breast. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then the lean chest lifted in a harsh breath, and the jittering pulse smoothed out to a labored but regular rhythm.
The otter's mouth opened. "Hurts..." it said faintly but clearly in Severus' voice. "Why am I here? I was...somewhere..."
Hermione took his right hand in both of hers, too exhausted to be surprised. The otter had given her her chance -- a slim one -- but she would seize it with all her strength. She would make him want to live. "You don't have to go there. Not yet."
"Tired...so many mistakes...so lonely..."
"Don't go," she said fiercely.
"All gone...Lily...Harry." The voice trailed off. "Let me go. Nothing to stay for."
"Oh but there is," she said, pressing her lips to his hand. The heart the otter gave him. "There is my heart."
"Yours...?" Leaves falling would have been louder.
"Mine. And now it's yours."
"It is a somewhat abbreviated version of the story," Severus admitted.
"Yes, we, er, left out some details," Hermione agreed.
Hermione and Severus looked at each other for a long moment, brown eyes into black. "Because it's ours," she said at last. "Because we wanted something that didn't belong to everyone else."
Lacey nodded slowly. "That makes sense. Everybody needs something that's just theirs." She yawned. "Don't worry, I won't tell anybody. Not even Uncle Harry. Goodnight, mum. Goodnight, dad." She went out and they heard her going up the stairs to her bedroom.
"She's a wise child, our daughter," Severus murmured, pulling Hermione onto his lap and wrapping his arms around her.
Hermione snuggled into him with a contented sound. "She gets it from her father."
He smiled into her hair. "Others might disagree."
"Others don't matter." She was silent for a moment, then her hand lifted to trace the thin white scars on his throat. "Did you really think of me every night?" she asked.
"Yes," he said. "It began as a sort of black joke, a defiance. I would brew my latest anti-venom, toast the girl who had pronounced my death sentence, and swallow it down. Then one day I realized that what you had really given me was the means -- perhaps -- to save myself."
"And when exactly did you realize this?"
"About the same time I realized you were no longer a girl,” he said with half-smile. “From that moment on, it was a gesture of gratitude. Not that I thought I'd ever get the chance to tell you."
She chuckled softly, then was silent for a moment. "It was such a near thing, Severus. If I'd figured it out even five minutes later, you'd have been gone. Do you know how frightened I was when I thought I was too late, and that I might lose you? How badly I wanted to convince you, to make you believe that you were loved and worthy of love?"
"Can you imagine how I felt when I knew you loved me? How alive?" He turned her to face him. "It was as though you truly had given me your heart, as if your strength and love was flowing directly into my veins. Your Patronus made it possible for you to tell me, but it was your heart that saved me."