…Once the fireplace flared, she hugged herself tightly, an inexplicable feeling of loss constricting her heart. He was gone.
And her heart had been right, she knew now. Hermione sighed as she rose from the settee, making her way to the living room window. The twilight had already fallen over her parents' garden, immersing the plants and flowers in different shades of grey.
Initially, she had wanted to return to Hogwarts immediately after Christmas, but the events of the evening had shattered this plan. Rose had been devastated by her grandfather's reaction, a reaction that only turned into a decision by the light of day and left a rift inside a distraught Weasley family. While Ginny and Bill had immediately sided with Rose, the rest of the family had supported Arthur's decision that her daughter wasn't welcome at the Burrow anymore.
Therefore, the rest of Hermione's winter break had been entirely consumed by this family crisis. When she hadn't been trying to console her distraught daughter as well as her conscience-stricken son, she had spent her time having long and often unpleasant talks with different members of the Weasley family.
After a very hurtful and upsetting conversation with her former in-laws, Hermione had been convinced that there was something far more personal behind Arthur's reaction. It wasn't the fact that Rose was marrying the son of a former Death Eater. Scorpius' good character was not in question—Al had vouched ardently for him—and Arthur had never before judged somebody because of his ancestry. He hadn't even held the slightest grudge against Sirius, although the Black family had disowned his own mother as she had married his father, Septimus Weasley. It just wasn't like him.
Eventually, Hermione was sure that the problem behind all this was that Rose was marrying the grandson of one Lucius Malfoy. She would have bet her Order of Merlin that something entirely personal had happened between the two men. But every time she had tried to confront Arthur about her assumption, he evaded her question by ending their discussion and asking her to leave.
By the start of term, she had returned to Hogwarts, emotionally exhausted and without a solution to ensure her daughter's happiness, but determined to find one. Upon her return, she realized that Severus had retreated behind his emotional shell, subjecting her to painful politeness. And even while he appeared tired and doleful to her, he acted as if Christmas Eve had never happened, avoiding Hermione as much as possible.
Her heart had felt drear and cold at his reaction, but Hermione had been far too wary of opening a second emotional battle line and confronting him and fighting whatever had led to his withdrawal. A condition that hadn't changed in the last five months. A time during which she had to muster all her strength to ensure that her daughter didn't have to decide between the man she loved and the family she belonged to.
But tonight, on the evening before Rose's wedding, she had finally to concede that she had failed. She had failed her daughter. She had failed to mend the rift that ran through her family. And as if this wasn't painful enough, she had to realize her battle against unknown shadows of the past had robbed her of the time and courage to pursue her heart's desire: Severus Snape.
In the last five months, she had banished every thought of him so successfully, she realized that she didn't even know if he would attend the wedding in the Great Hall tomorrow… if her heart would have to endure seeing him there without being able to be close to him.
With a swift Accio, Hermione spelled the guest list from the kitchen table into her hands. Her eyes wandered over the parchment. She frowned. She checked it a second time, and the frown between her brows deepened. Severus' name was still unmarked. Hadn't he responded to the invitation yet? It wouldn't be like him not to, and Rose would never forget him if he had. She had been quite insistent about sending him one.
Hermione gazed for a moment at the puzzle in front of her before she took a look at her watch and made a quick decision. It was barely after seven o'clock. She would simply Floo in and ask him. It was something she did for a dozen of things during the term—well, not lately—but why not, if her daughter's wedding was concerned?
She grasped a hand of Floo powder and threw it into the fireplace, but no green flames appeared as she called out her destination. She tried again with the same result and crossed her arms in frustration.
Strange, she thought, worrying her bottom lip.
He must have closed his Floo connection, but she had never known him to do so before, and now that she thought about it, she realized that she hadn't seen him at breakfast before she left Hogwarts this morning. Hermione flung herself back onto the settee, mulling whether those two things, the missing invitation response, and the closed Floo connection, could be linked in some way. They appeared like pieces of a peculiar puzzle to her.
Hermione was still lost in thought as her fireplace flared green. Her gaze snapped up, only to find the face of Hogwarts' Headmistress in the flames, and she tried best to hide the sudden disappointment she felt.
"Hermione, are you there?"
The younger witch rose and moved to the fireplace. "Hello, Minerva."
"Still nothing new from the Weasleys, I assume?" It was something Hermione appreciated the most about her former Head of House; Minerva McGonagall didn't waste anybody's time with preambles or pleasantries.
She shook her head slightly. "No, nothing, and I don't expect to change that before tomorrow."
"I am really sorry, dear."
"So am I." Hermione shrugged in defeat. "At least Rose appeared genuinely happy as she left tonight."
Minerva nodded, gazing at her over the edge of her square glasses. "Hermione, are you all right? You look as if something else is worrying you."
She made a dismissive gesture. "Oh, it's nothing. I just tried to Floo Severus a few minutes ago, and it seems as if he has closed the Floo connection of his fireplace. It's just not like him. Did you see him at dinner tonight?"
Momentarily, the expression on Minerva's face changed from the one she had always used to worm answers out of reluctant students to one of concern... a change that caused an anxious knot to curl in Hermione's stomach.
"No, no, I haven't seen him." Minerva cast her a worried glance. "Not since he went to see Albus' portrait this morning."
"He did what?! But he hasn't since―"
"I know. I know," Minerva said crisply. "He came this morning to my office and asked if he could have a few minutes alone with Albus. I thought maybe you had finally convinced him―"
"No, he hasn't said a word to me about it."
Hermione bit her bottom lip. Severus hadn't spoken to Dumbledore's portrait since his flight from Hogwarts, and he stubbornly refused to do it after his return, even when Dumbledore had asked to see him.
"Has he said anything why he wanted to talk to him?"
Minerva gave her an uncomfortable look. "I didn't want to pry; maybe I should have, but, well, I did not, and Albus has been feigning sleep the whole day. I can tell that by now."
Hermione said nothing. First, the missing invitation response, a closed Floo connection, and now, he had decided to talk to Dumbledore's portrait for the first time in twenty-nine years and hadn't been seen afterward.
She frowned. Where are you, Severus?
"Hermione, maybe we are dramatizing things. It's Saturday. It could be that he just wanted to be left alone for the day."
She cast Minerva a skeptical glance but didn't mention the missing invitation response. Somehow, her heart knew that this wasn't caused by a mood swing that would last a day.
She sighed. "Yes, maybe you are right. Nevertheless, could you please try to wake Albus once more?"
"I will. And you'd try to get some sleep, dear. You look completely exhausted."
"Thank you, Minerva. I'll try." With another nod, the headmistress vanished from the flames and left Hermione standing once again alone in her empty living room.
She hugged herself once more, rubbing her bare upper arms against the sudden chill she felt. Damn, it was mid-May, and she shouldn't be freezing at all. But she was, after weeks of too much stress and too little sleep.
She went into the kitchen, searching for some Ginger tea in her cabinet. She hadn't prepared the house for a longer stay, but the essentials were always there. The only question was, where had she left them?
As she finally found the package, she set up some water, as she still liked her tea best when it was brewed the Muggle way, and leaned against the kitchen cupboard, lost deep in thought while waiting for the water to boil.
Why would Severus go to visit Albus's portrait after all this time? Why today of all days? He hadn't said a thing about planning to do it or... had she missed one of his careful insinuations that he wanted to speak about something personal with her? No, he wouldn't do that anymore. But once there had been those precious moments when he had dared to open up to her, mostly during their nightly patrols.
She had learned then that he had worked for different Ministries of Magic around the world as some kind of security consultant after he had left Great Britain. Well, he hadn't just left; he had simply vanished from the face of the earth the night after the Wizengamot had announced his acquittal of all charges.
"I received what I had thought only death could give me back: Freedom. Suddenly, I had a life to claim, but how could I have done so while the past surrounded me everywhere I went?" he had explained to her one evening as she had asked why he had left. "So, I took this offer from the American Minister of Magic."
She had understood his decision, and she had understood the political officials abroad. They had been eager to buy his knowledge about Potions and the Dark Arts, combined with his spying experience, to train their Aurors. Had it not been for Minerva, who had somehow known where to find him, and her constant nagging, he would be probably still be training foreign Aurors today.
Next to Hermione, the kettle whistled, jolting her from her thoughts, and a moment later, she was infusing herself a cup of peppermint tea as the sudden sound of the flaring fireplace caused her to wince, spilling some of the hot water over her left hand and the kitchen cupboard.
"Hermione?" Harry's voice called from the living room.
"Damn," she swore, shaking her hand in pain. "I am coming. Just a moment." She cast a silent Evanesco to vanish the mess before she rushed into the living room.
"Hello, love, may I come through?"
Harry stepped out of the flames and into her living room, drawing her into a brief embrace.
"How is Rose? Ginny said she was in good spirits when she left with Lily and Victoire."
"She was, far better than I would have expected days ago," she confirmed. "Haven't you seen her yourself? Don't tell me you were working again."
Hermione eyed him suspiciously, a frown between her brows. Since Harry had accepted the post of Head of the Auror Department at the Ministry, he often had appointments during the weekend or late in the evening. This fact had caused some disharmony at Grimmauld Place, and she had often been the one Ginny called for some comfort and reassurance.
Harry brushed with a hand through his still unruly hair, giving her an uneasy look. "Well, yes."
"No, you don't, 'Mione." Harry sighed. "Love, this isn't just a formal call. Can we sit down, please?"
She gestured to the settee, ignoring the anxious knot that was curling her stomach again. She followed Harry once he sat down.
"So, what is so important for the Ministry that it couldn't wait until after Rose's wedding?" she said, irritated. "It's not as if I hadn't enough on my mind right now." She knew that she was unjustifiably angry with him, but the tension she felt was finally wearing down on her.
"I know, 'Mione, and I am sorry, but you are the only one I trust for advice on this matter."
Hermione inclined her head, waiting for him to go on.
"It's Snape, 'Mione."
"What about Severus?" she asked quickly, trying to keep the sudden worry out of her voice.
"Well, the lead Guard of Azkaban Flooed me a few hours ago. Snape has paid Dolores Umbridge a visit today. Do you have any idea why he would do that?"
"Are you monitoring him, Harry? Is it that why you are informed about his moves?" she snapped, while her mind tried to make sense of this new puzzle piece. Severus had gone to Azkaban. He went to see Umbridge.
Harry grasped her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "Love, please draw in your claws. I am not monitoring him. It's Umbridge. Her visitors are reported to me personally."
"I am sorry, Harry." She squeezed his hand in return, giving him a lopsided smile. "You know I don't trust the Ministry where Severus is concerned, not after what they have put him through."
"I know, but times have changed, love; we have changed the Ministry." He gestured at them both before returning to his initial question. "So, do you have a clue why Snape would go to see Umbridge?"
Hermione shook her head. "Not one. I thought that after the year he had to spend there, Severus would never want to see this place again."
"So did I," Harry agreed, while he regarded her pensively. "You are worried by this news, 'Mione. Why?"
She looked away, haunted by Severus' words, echoing in her mind. "They tried to bury me alive in Azkaban, Hermione. I never thought I would leave that place, that tomb, again, until the Order achieved my release."
She bit her bottom lip. And today, he had gone back to that place to see Umbridge, as he had gone to see Dumbledore's portrait.
What are you doing, Severus?
"'Mione, talk to me, please."
"Severus visited Albus' portrait today," she said tersely.
She nodded. "Minerva just told me, as well."
Harry frowned. "'Mione, did you know that Umbridge owes Snape a Life Debt?"
"What? How do you know this, Harry?"
"Prophecies aren't the only things collected at the Department of Mysteries. Did you think I wasted my time before I came to see you? I have learned something from you, love: research is everything." Harry gave her a sheepish grin, before he went on, "The entry in the Ministry roll is dated on the 19th of June, 1996. That's one day after Sirius―" He trailed off, clearing his throat, and she squeezed his hand in understanding.
"Because of the date, I have a good idea where the Life Debt resulted from love. I think Albus sent Snape to negotiate Umbridge's release from the centaurs. But I can't come up with a reliable explanation, why Snape would call upon this Life Debt after all these years, 'Mione." He looked at her inquiringly.
Hermione shrugged helplessly. There was nothing she knew to have happened that should make Severus feel the need to call upon something so strong as a Life Debt. Or had she missed the signs? Could this be the reason behind his emotional withdrawal? Desperation cramped her already nervous stomach.
"No, I haven't, Harry, but why would you think I could have? Why are you coming to me with all this?" she asked, anger and distress plain in her voice.
"I thought you and Snape―"
"You thought what?"
"Ron told me you spent Christmas Eve together, love, so I assumed you two are―" He paused. "―well, close."
"We were." Past. Gone. Lost. Saying it out loud, confessing it in front of a friend, and knowing it was true, hurt more as she could have imagined.
"I am sorry, love."
"It's okay, Harry. It's just, I am worried about him, and I have no idea why he is doing it, but I know what he is doing, Harry. And it scares me―" She paused and leaped to her feet, approaching the living room window.
"First Dumbledore, now Azkaban. Harry, for some reason, Severus is facing his demons, his fears—whatever you wish to call it—and I have the feeling I should be there for him―" She hugged herself, wishing the coldness would leave her. "―and I am not."
Harry said nothing, but she heard him rise from the settee as well. Moments later, she felt his hands grasping her shoulders gently.
"You love him." A statement, not even a question anymore, but Harry had spoken it without any hint of disapproval.
Hermione nodded, not trusting her voice as the lump in her throat spread, making it hard to breathe.
"He will be fine, 'Mione. Believe me. Snape has always been."
Another silent nod and Hermione felt herself being drawn into Harry's embrace. She allowed herself the small comfort of being held by her oldest friend, but it was the very recent memory of another embrace that truly enfolded her heart.
She leaned her forehead against the cold stone wall. Thankfully, the Astronomy Tower maintained its chilly atmosphere even throughout May. The coolness of the stone against her skin helped her to remain focussed. Her cheeks were burning, burning with hurt and failure. Her right hand held Molly's letter in an iron grip, crushing it with all her might, hoping it would dissolve into dust. But it wouldn't. Somehow it wouldn't.
Wrath, hot and searing, filled her stomach, and she bit the inside of her cheek against the sudden desire to scream, to rage. How did she dare to declare her own granddaughter a non-person? How did she dare, without even giving a reason? Another surge of anger washed over her, and Hermione barely recognized how her hand, still curled around the parchment, moved to strike the wall with violent strength,
But her fist never hit the cold stone in front of her. At lightning speed, a hand rushed forward, gripping her wrist and stopping her movement mid-air.
Not daring to move, Hermione cast a glance sideward. Next to her, Severus leaned against the wall regarding her intently. She realized he must have followed her as she had left the staff table abruptly after the letter had arrived. His hand was still holding her wrist as he dropped his gaze to her curled fist. And she conceded as he unhinged the parchment from her fingers.
She closed her eyes and nodded. She hadn't the strength to look at him while his eyes were flying over the hurtful lines that called her abilities as a mother into question and judged her daughter's love, telling her that there would be no family reconciliation, not tomorrow nor ever.
Blindly, she followed his gentle pull as he enfolded her in his arms, holding her tightly against his chest. She buried her face in his frock coat. He smelled like salty sea air, and the steady beating of his heart was the most soothing sound she could have imagined. Here, in his arms, she knew her heart was home.
But the moment they stepped away from each other, he left as quickly as he had appeared.
Only the shadows heard her soft, "Thank you."
Once more, as if the fates wanted to mock her, the air filled with the sound of her fireplace flaring, and Hermione groaned quietly, pressing her face deeper into the fabric of Harry's pullover. All she wanted right now was to be left alone, to sleep, to forget. No more visitors, no more questions, no more memories.
"My, my, what a cozy scene we have here." Draco stepped into the living room, a cold smile on his face.
Harry's embrace had instinctively tightened at his former nemesis' appearance. Hermione quickly wriggled free, straightening her blouse.
"Good evening, Draco. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?" She tried to sound calm.
During the wedding preparations, they had reached something like a truce for the sake of their children. But still, Hermione tried to keep their contact at a minimum, discussing most things with his wife, Astoria. Therefore, his spontaneous visit tonight was a novelty, one she didn't like at all.
"Maybe I should better ask what my father owes the displeasure of being visited by one of your lapdogs, Hermione?"
"Watch your tongue. Malfoy," Harry bawled at Draco, wand ready at his side.
Swiftly, Hermione grasped his wrist. "Harry, please, put your wand away! Draco, what are you talking about?"
"Don't tell me it wasn't you who sent Snape to my father, asking for those memories. Snape has never gone to see him in all those years, and Rose certainly told you that Mother and I try everything not to upset Father, Hermione. And right now, he is agitated, indeed."
His voice had cracked softly over the word "Father", and Hermione wondered if Draco had realized it as well as she regarded him. It was apparent that his anger was outweighed by his worry for his father's health. Lucius Malfoy had never really recovered after his year in Azkaban and the abuse—mental and physical—he had received afterward at Voldemort's hands. It had been one of the reasons Hermione had refrained from confronting him herself about the reasons for Arthur's personal feud with him. Draco had done this in her place, but without any satisfactory result.
And now Severus had gone to see him. A new piece to her puzzle, but if she had needed final proof that Severus facing the ghosts of his past, his visit to Malfoy Manor provided it.
But why are you doing this, Severus?
First, he had obviously called upon a Life Debt, now he collected some unknown memories. It didn't make sense at all. Hermione shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts.
"Draco, honestly, even if it were in my power to send Severus Snape anywhere to collect some memories for me―as I can assure you it is not―why would I? I have no use for any of your father's memories."
Draco measured her with his suspicious grey eyes while she spoke. "You have, Hermione. From what father tells me, those memories concern the Weasley family. And they were the only ones Snape requested."
"What?" Harry exclaimed. Shaking her head, Hermione bit her bottom lip, gazing desperately at the ceiling.
But before Draco could elaborate on the content of those memories, the flames flared green once more. Hermione felt her heart stop as Arthur bustled into the room, a look of anguish marking his face.
"Rose? Is she here, Hermione? Rose!" he called desperately.
"No, she isn't here," Harry answered coolly before she could.
"Hermione, where is she now? I need—Sweet Merlin, I need to talk to her," Arthur pleaded, rushing toward her, grasping her desperately by the shoulders, oblivious to everybody else in the room. "I need to make amends, Hermione. I have been wrong, so inexcusably wrong."
Finally, regaining her composure again, Hermione drew a deep breath.
"She is out celebrating, Arthur, with Lily and Victoire. But even if I knew where they are right now, I would ask you not to disturb them. Rose has earned one evening without family dramatics before her wedding, don't you agree?"
His face fell. "You are right. I am so sorry, Hermione. Can you ever forgive me?"
"It's not in my place to forgive anything, Arthur." She smiled sadly. "But maybe we could start by you explaining what has caused this epiphany tonight?"
She gestured toward the settee before looking firmly at Harry and Draco, who had already turned to the fireplace, ready to leave. "I'll call you both later, okay? I have a certain feeling that all of this is somehow connected."
They both nodded and vanished through the fireplace. Once Hermione had taken her place, she looked at Arthur, waiting for him to begin.
It took minutes of heavy silence before he finally said, "You were right, Hermione, when you accused that the reason I repudiated Rose was not because she is marrying the son of a former Death Eater but was because she is marrying Lucius' grandson."
"Then why haven't you been honest with me, Arthur?"
"I am so sorry, Hermione. You have to forgive an old man for believing for over fifty years the most convenient explanation for a personal failure that cost our family dearly. So dearly, that I have never before spoken about it to anyone but Dumbledore and to him, only because he had to know because of the Order. I couldn't even bring myself tell Molly, Hermione, that's why I haven't been honest with you."
She nodded. Dumbledore. The puzzle pieces were moving. "What kind of failure?"
He sighed, his eyes fixed upon the floor. "Shortly after I knew that Molly was pregnant again, this time with Fred and George, I realized that I needed a promotion. My position in the Office against the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts didn't provide enough to support a family of seven properly, in my opinion. Funny how I thought that at the time, given how it all turned out in the end, isn't it, Hermione?" A dry sob caught in his throat, and Hermione felt her chest tightening at his words.
"At that time, 1976, Voldemort and his followers were already a looming shadow, but within the Ministry, we were far more concerned about our declining relations with the Muggle Minister. Therefore, and blind in my wish to earn the promotion I thought I needed so badly, I submitted a suggestion for improvement to the Ministry Board of Executives. My idea was to establish a perpetual council between the highest authorities of the wizarding and the Muggle worlds to better understand each other. I have been a fool, Hermione."
Arthur buried his face in his hands. Hermione placed a gentle hand on his back next to him on the settee, rubbing it gently.
"Arthur, you aren't a fool. Your idea was wonderful, and as you very well know, we have something very similar, like a council between the British Government and the Ministry today."
He looked up, his face was grief-stricken. "Today, Hermione. But at that time, it was an insane thing to do."
"The Board dismissed the proposal immediately, but what was far worse, they decided to suspend my right for promotion indefinitely 'because of my inability to think in the best interest of the Ministry and the wizarding world.' That's the reason why I was in the Misuse Office for over a decade, Hermione."
She nodded silently, knowing that there were no words, no consolation to ease the pain behind this confession.
"I heard from my Chief of Office that it had been at first only one person within the Board who proposed my career suspension, but this person did it so persuasively that the other members voted for it in the end as well, dooming my family to a decade of almost poverty."
"Lucius," Hermione whispered, still unable to believe that Arthur had kept all this from Molly and his children.
"So, I thought as well, until today." He shook his head, disbelievingly. "But it wasn't Lucius, Hermione. It was Umbridge."
With Arthur's explanation, puzzle piece after puzzle piece found its place for Hermione, forming such an incredible solution, she didn't dare to believe it.
"How do you know this, Arthur?" she asked, seeking confirmation although her heart already knew the answer to her question.
"Severus. You can probably imagine how surprised I was to see him again after all these years. He came to the Burrow tonight and asked to speak to me. I wanted to refuse at first, but, well, in the end, I let him in. He showed me Umbridge's memory of the Board meeting and a few of Lucius' memories. And while his reasons were grounded in the wrong beliefs, I now know that it was Lucius who discouraged You-Know-Who's ambitions to strike against our family, Hermione. That's why I came here tonight. I need to tell Rose how wrong I have been."
Hermione closed her eyes, swallowing hard. Severus. He had done all this today, had faced the demons he had avoided for so long, for her family, for her daughter. Did he even realize what he had given her today?
A moment later, she felt Arthur's hand on hers. "I still have no idea how he knew about all this: my proposal to the Board, Umbridge. But regardless of how he knew it, he has done it for you, Hermione."
She blinked, unable to comprehend, to believe Arthur's words. She shook her head desperately, wishing this new painful surge of hope would leave her alone.
"Trust me, Hermione. He didn't say in so many words, but when I asked if I would see him at the wedding, he told me that he had lost his chance to receive the wedding invitation he'd hoped for."
This time, there was no ache, no pain that accompanied cognition for her as the final puzzle piece fell into place. This time, there was nothing but the humming in her veins.
"I have to go, Arthur. Thank you for telling me. I will speak to Rose early in the morning, and we will come to the Burrow as soon as possible. She will understand, Arthur. Everything will be all right, I promise."
She leaped from the settee and placed a peck on his brow before she Flooed to the headmistress' office at Hogwarts.
A second later, she was gone.
Endless minutes later, she stood together with Minerva in front of Severus' office door. Minerva gave her an inquiring look over the edge of her square glasses, and Hermione could have sworn her beady eyes were twinkling slightly.
It hadn't taken a lot of explanation to ensure the headmistress' cooperation in this matter.
"Are you sure, dear?"
"As sure as I will ever be," Hermione confirmed, taking a shaky breath.
Minerva cast a silent spell, taking down the wards on Severus's office door and opening it a crack. As Headmistress of Hogwarts, she was the only one who could do it beside Severus himself.
"Now, it's your turn, my dear," Minerva said with a wink.
Hermione laughed. "Thank you, Minerva. I'll see what I can do about that." She hugged the headmistress briefly and stepped through the door and into Severus's dimly lit office, her heart beating violently against her ribcage.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness of the room, but after a second or two, she saw the outlines the door that led to Severus' private quarters. She cast a non-verbal Alohomora, sending a silent prayer to whatever benevolent deities might be listening that she would find him behind this door, and a fraction of a second later, the heavy wood in front of her cracked open without a sound.
After a moment of hesitation, she slid through.
Only the flames in the fireplace lit the living room, but they did little to banish the cold from the dungeon. In front of the fire, Severus sat in one of his armchairs, bent forward, and holding a balloon glass in his hands, his posture one of exhaustion.
Carefully, she knocked on the wood of the doorframe, making her presence known to him. Slowly, he looked up from the flames for a moment, his expression hidden by the semi-darkness of the room.
"Hermione." His voice sounded hollow.
"Severus," she said softly, crossing the room. "How are you? From what I heard, you had a rough day."
"I have been better," he said with a cheerless laugh, leaning back to face her as she reached him. Her heart hurt as she saw the dark circles that wrapped his eyes. He looked as if he hadn't slept in days.
Silently, she knelt down in front of the armchair and took the glass of Firewhiskey from his hands, enfolding them in hers.
"Thank you," she whispered, knowing that these two words would never balance what he had done for Rose, for her.
His dark eyes fluttered shut, and he nodded, his Adam's apple bopping violently.
"I know what it must have cost you to―"
His eyes snapped open, dark with emotion. "Hush." He cupped her cheek with one hand, placing his thumb gently on her lips, silencing her mid-sentence. And even if she had wanted to finish her thought, she wouldn't have been able to as the unexpected sensation of his touch struck her breathless.
She leaned into his palm, savoring the feeling of his skin on hers. Uncounted minutes passed until she finally asked, "How did you know?"
An astute grin played in the corners of his mouth. "I have been a spy, Hermione, and even if I hadn't been one, I heard you tell Minerva about your suspicion regarding Arthur and Lucius often enough. Today I just did a little research on my own."
"I researched for months," she said quietly, the feeling of failure once again heavy on her soul.
"I know Hermione, but my advantage was, well, let's say there are some people who could not deny me when I asked for their cooperation."
Hermione sat up, placing her hands on his knees and shaking her head slightly. "Only, they aren't just some people, Severus."
He took her hands in his, regarding them for a moment as if they were the most precious thing in the world, and as he raised his eyes to her again, the amount of ardor and affection filling those dark depths left her trembling.
"I know, Hermione. But if that's what it takes, if my facing the ghosts of my past is what it takes to see you happy, Hermione, I'd do so again and gladly. I finally realized that―" He swallowed, forcing his wavering voice under control. "―I mean, if you allow me into your life again."
"I never cast you out, Severus," she said, unacknowledged hurt misting her eyes.
"No, I did that myself. I know that, Hermione." A wistful expression flitted over his face, and she realized he had no more guards left.
"I told you before, I am not good at sharing; in fact, there has been little in my life that truly belonged to me," he said quietly, his gaze straying to their joined hands again. "After Christmas Eve, I realized that you would never be mine alone, Hermione, even if you wanted to be. There would always be a daughter, an ex-husband, a whole family that needs you―"
His words sank in, filling her chest with new coldness, and suddenly all Hermione wanted was to leave, to run as far as she could. She leaped to her feet, but Severus didn't let go of her hands as he rose as well.
"Please, hear me out, Hermione. Will you?"
Reluctantly, she nodded, not able to look into his eyes again.
"Hermione, I know my reason was selfish, and I know it's hard to understand, but the fear that I might have to share your heart, that my feelings might not be returned with equal measure―" He trailed off, clearing his throat.
"Yesterday, on the Astronomy Tower, when you were finally in my arms, I wanted nothing more than to hold you—as long as I could. Hermione, I am willing to face this fear, if that's what it takes to love you, even if this means sharing you with the whole Weasley bunch and their associates."
There was a moment of silence before Hermione searched his gaze. Never before had she seen such a raw vulnerability in his eyes.
"Love me," she asked carefully as if the wrong word from him would shatter her heart irrevocably. And somehow it would.
"Love you, Hermione, yes. I do love you. Is that so hard to believe?" he said, his voice constricted by uncertainty. But within a moment, his words had melted the doubts and fears around her heart, freeing her chest from the lingering coldness.
Hermione smiled up at him, a smile as bright as the August sun, as she rose on her tiptoes, wrapping her arms around his neck. "No, actually, it isn't. But before I tell you why, I would like to try something else first."
Enfolding her in his arms, Severus chuckled, well aware that they'd had this conversation before. Mirth and relief glistened in the black of his eyes.
"I have no idea what that could be."
"You could try to guess, you know," she teased.
And this time, he did. With one movement, he bent down, claiming her lips, her love. Ardently. Longingly. Leaving her breathless. But this time, Hermione knew her heart would survive.
"… who gives this woman to this man?" Minerva asked in a dignified tone, looking up from her book to gaze at Ron and Hermione.
They both stepped forward and shared a glance before saying together, "We do."
Hermione blinked, but nothing could save her from the sudden rush of tears as Rose gave her a radiant smile. Her daughter was happy, and she couldn't be more so. With another glance at each other, she and Ron placed the cord around the bridal couple's joined hands and stepped back again to stand with the rest of their friends and family.
Hermione took her place next to Severus again, and he slid his hand into hers, entwining their fingers and giving them a slight squeeze. She was home.