SSHG Prompt Fest Mod (sshg_pf_mod) wrote in sshg_promptfest,
SSHG Prompt Fest Mod

FIC: Once You Are Real (PG)

Title: Once You Are Real
Type: Fic
Prompter: kerravonsen
Creator: rivertempest
Beta(s): delphipsmith and toblass
Rating: PG
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Angst, UST, dystopian, Alternate Universe - Steampunk!
(Highlight to View) Prompt: #115 - Art or Fic: Galatea. AU. Hermione is a statue brought to life by the love of her creator, Severus. (Bonus points for Steampunk AU where Hermione is a clockwork automaton.) (HEA please) (SS/HG or SS & HG)
Note: I based the dystopian setting on World of Eberron, which is a campaign in the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. Material relating to that campaign is owned by TSR and Wizards of the Coast. Everything recognizable to Harry Potter is owned by J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers - I make nothing from either. This story is based on the myth of Galatea and Pygmalion. Massive thanks to my betas!
Summary: There is something at work in Severus' soul, something he doesn't understand. When it manifests in an unusual form, the conundrum becomes this: can the creator love the creation?

"Real isn't how you are made. It's a thing that happens to you. Sometimes it hurts, but when you are Real you don't mind being hurt. It doesn't happen all at once. You become. Once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand. Once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always." ~ Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

Today, he hates Hermione Granger.

Severus Snape doesn't always hate her, but today is a particularly trying day and her constant observations grate more than usual.

"You have not slept in twenty-seven hours and thirteen minutes."

Yes, thank you, he was aware of that. "Hmm."

"You have not had any sustainable nourishment for fourteen hours and thirty-five minutes."

Severus shoves the magnification goggles over his forehead to rest atop his still-greasy hair. "That's because you burnt what was left of the bread, the dragons have imposed new tariffs on perishables and I don't have time to make a trip to Shae Cairdal to procure necessities." He pulls the goggles back into place and resumes his tedious, time-consuming work.

She is unperturbed but, given her nature, if she were anything else Severus would doubt his mind. "Then I shall make the trip to Shae Cairdal."

He takes no notice of her departure, though he vaguely registers a dearth of warmth in the work area.

The first Antikytherian that Severus built (Kythers to the public at large) resembled his mother—so much so that he promptly disassembled it and melted the framework in his forge. Looking upon her visage more than two hundred and fifty years after her death had left him unsettled. That he created his mother first sent whispers of an Oedipus complex amongst his colleagues, but they were sorely mistaken. Severus' imitation of his mother wasn't sexual in nature… it was simple affection. She had been the lone figure in his life that had shown any sort of kindness or compassion towards him.

Until Hermione Granger, that is.

On days that Severus hates Granger, he summons the memories of that time in the Shrieking Shack. How, as he lay dying, his blood and his memories spilling in red and silver on the ground, she couldn't resist one more chance to satisfy her saviour complex. Upon reflection, she puts Potter to shame in the 'lives saved' category. On days that Severus truly loathes her, he tells her that she should not have added his miserable life to her tally.

Because what she did is the reason he is still here amongst the living when he should have long ago become dust coating a library in some forgotten corner of the world. The meddlesome witch had carried a phial of Phoenix tears when she and Potter began their crusade, and she'd used the last drops on Severus' wounds before he drew his last breath. Of course she could not have anticipated the effects Phoenix tears would have when combined with a fatal bite from a living Horcrux—no one could as there was no precedent. The hypothesis, based upon the only available evidence (i.e., himself), was staggering: a living host for an immortal soul plus self-healing properties equalled Severus Snape surviving far beyond a normal wizard's age. Thus far, he had left behind all those he'd known as a child, as an adult and in what should've been his dotage years.

He was now two hundred and eighty-three years old, and the world had gone to hell, literally. Catastrophic destruction from widespread famine and illness, along with vast Muggle wars, had resulted in nearly wiping the planet clean of humans. Australia was obliterated. Typhoons submerged two-thirds of Asia. Canada was nothing more than a desolate arctic zone. There were monthly betting pools as to a being's manner of death if they dared visit South America or Africa—both were now home to a multitude of sentient flourishing dragon breeds who viewed any non-draconian race as considerably 'lesser'. Unfortunately, the dragons also controlled most of the trade routes, which had left the human species nearing extinction. After the third fleet of ships carrying spices and grain 'disappeared', the inhabitants of what was left of the United Kingdom decided on a solution.

One that Severus Snape was more than adept at providing.

The second Kyther Severus created looked exactly like Harry Potter, right down to the lightning bolt scar on his forehead. Severus reasoned that it was easier to hate than to love, that he wouldn't be struck with paralysing grief even for a moment if the new Kyther looked like Potter. He had contemplated making one that looked like Lily Evans, but recalling his reaction to the Kyther of his mother, Severus decided against making one that would bring him nothing but heartache, as it took enormous concentration to force a shape onto a Kyther. Given what had happened previously, he didn't want to waste his resources on something he would immediately destroy.

Because he had to immerse himself in his memories of Harry Potter, it was horribly unpleasant recalling the irrational anger towards the wizard. The real Potter had been dead for well over a hundred years and only a few of his offspring had survived, so Severus' memories of their association had to suffice as a character base. If his concentration wavered for even a fraction of a second during this process, the Kyther would become substandard, mediocre and would fail to animate. The 'unmoulding' was always a tense moment, where he would be presented with either a fully functional Kyther… or fuel for the forge. The instant Severus had implanted the memory chip behind Potter's left ear, it was as if he were transported back to 1998 and he was staring at the boy wizard who had caused him so much trouble. It was fortuitous that Potter was created with a purpose in mind—to negotiate with the dragon clans—or Severus might have added a 'slave' enhancement to the programming. He was unprepared, however, for the swell of protectiveness that had washed over him when Potter first smiled at him and thanked him. When Parliament had set the date for the first negotiation, Severus had to physically restrain himself from shackling Potter to a piece of furniture so that he couldn't leave. There was no guarantee the Kyther would return from his mission and Severus tried to fool himself into thinking that it was a waste of months of hard work if the Kyther would be engulfed in flames the moment he set foot on the Dragon Lands.

When the Potter Kyther had appeared on his doorstep from his negotiations relatively unharmed, Severus let out a tense breath he didn't realise he'd been holding. Potter returned with no hair—it had been melted off—and the robes in which Severus had outfitted him were a bit singed. The Argonnessen Accord had been struck, though, due in large part to Potter's non-threatening appearance and the Kyther's cold logic, something for which the dragon clans had an affinity. That logic would remain as part of the core program, but the Kyther would eventually create its own memories, its own data reserves; if all went well it would become self-sufficient after one month of intense interaction in their given field.

Severus was hailed as a hero, bestowed the title of Severus Vol, Elder of the Undying Court and commissions for more Kythers flooded in. Severus railed against the so-called honour, stating emphatically that heroes didn't exist, that they could stick their frivolous title up their apathetic arses and that although he might consider training qualified individuals on how to make a Kyther, he himself certainly wasn't going to spend eons creating lifeless automatons that were replicas of people he had known. Severus was many things, but that level of masochism was reserved for the truly perverted.

Most beings, Severus supposed, needed a higher power to believe in, to give them purpose, and so he was not surprised to see Pagan, Druidic and mage magic become commonplace in the aftermath of desolation, as humanity reverted to its superstitious roots. Nor was he particularly impressed with the many temples, shrines and sanctuaries erected to worship the pantheon of deities humans created (or re-created) to serve their needs. Severus believed in none of it. He'd lived too long to believe in gods, all of whom history had proven to be fictitious and most of whom had inspired their worshipers to more or less (mostly more) atrocious acts. Instead, he believed in what could be seen, touched, tasted, heard—logic, proven scientific fact, action and reaction. He wasted no time contemplating his purpose, why he was here. He simply was.

Severus created two more Kythers after Potter. The first was commissioned by one of these new sects, worshippers of Kol Korran, a god to whom humans tormented by the sin of avarice liked to bend their knee. They wanted an automaton that was charming and competent with financial matters, which stood to reason as it would represent the god of trade and commerce. Building this one also served as an example to his apprentices. As he had told Parliament in no uncertain terms, he was not about to spend his years creating replicas of his past. The sooner he could teach others his methods, the better.

The Kyther he created for the Kol Korranians, with the help of his apprentices, greatly resembled Lucius Malfoy, who had perished shortly after the Dark Lord's fall. When it came time to implant the memories within his old friend, Severus took longer than usual, focusing very, very carefully on omitting the more manipulative, sadistic, bigoted characteristics the original Lucius had carried. He found it disconcerting, however, to look upon the visage of Malfoy and not want to severely hex him, especially when the Kyther 'woke up' and demanded a cup of tea. He did not acknowledge the pang of loneliness that tightened his chest when the Lucius Kyther was deemed ready to present to the Brotherhood of Kol, nor did he admit to the gasp that escaped his lips when Malfoy had turned to look at him in confusion as he left Severus' workshop.

Though he still interacted with Lucius from time to time—adjustments and calibrations were occasionally needed—Severus mainly kept to himself, with the intermittent tutelage of apprentices. The humans chosen to take on such responsibility all had low-level magic thrumming in their veins, though it was mostly an untapped resource. They couldn't truly be called wizarding folk, not in the sense that Severus had known, but they were one step above Squibs, possibly two, and that latent ability was more than enough to activate a Kyther once it was created. It was one thing to make a Kyther—they were, after all, merely clockwork mechanisms beneath a fleshy covering—but it took magic and memories to bring them to life.

The second Kyther he produced… well, he still didn't know why he'd created that one. Fit of ennui, perhaps? When one has no set time limit on one's existence, one does what one can to alleviate the inherent boredom. There was a curiosity, though, that plagued him when it came to the creation of Kythers—what would happen if he didn't concentrate at all? What would the Kyther look like if he let his subconscious cast the die? Would it conjure a monster from his past or a saviour disguised as a manipulative mentor? Perhaps that had been the motivation behind his next creation. When it came time, he deliberately lost himself in memories and unfocused images. There was a sense of affection that stirred at the back of his mind, a tug of memory, but he ferociously suppressed it. He didn't want to be consciously aware of the shape he'd fashioned until he'd already finished the potion that would form the flesh upon the metal frame—the Kyther could be anyone at that point. As he was about to pour the concoction, which smelled like burnt feathers, into the mould, he paused, taking in the cast of his construct. Female, mid-height, the bone structure delicate but strong. He poured until the potion surrounded the model and left it to set for five days. Once it dried, he would know the face of the person his mind had unknowingly conjured.

When he'd opened the cast, he nearly smashed the piece right then and there, so bitter were the memories it brought back.

Hermione Granger—fuzzy-haired, know-it-all, compulsive termagant.

He'd gnashed his teeth, shaking with rage. One solid blow to the head or chest and the automaton would be ruined. He'd even raised his wand to blast it with a Bombarda, but stayed his hand before the word left his mouth. What good would it do him to destroy months of work simply because it resembled the reason he was living in a state of reluctant immortality? The true culprit, the real Hermione Granger, had died decades ago, surrounded by her red-headed spawn.

Besides, it would have taken a year to procure the necessary elements and other essentials to begin another Kyther. So, he'd gritted his teeth and chosen to make do with this replica for the time being, intending to start on another once she was activated—one he wouldn't want to blast on sight. But instead of giving the Kyther all of his many memories of his former pupil, he'd given her only the base logic she would need to function. No personality, no inflection to her voice.

Nothing for him to hate.

Because he can't die; he's tried, in a plethora of ways, and failed each time: hanging, drowning, poisoning. He'd even found and stared down a Basilisk with no worse result than a slight headache. After the twenty-third attempt to discard his hateful existence (leaping from the Eiffel Tower—showy, yes, but by that time he wasn't looking for subtlety), he gave up and began to survive. Not live, merely survive; it feelt depressingly familiar, like his long-ago years as a triple agent for Albus. He's done his penance, paid the penalty for his sins, hasn't he? Apparently not; the Fates have other ideas, and have chosen as their intermediary the bothersome witch who decided she was going to save his scrawny arse.

Yes, he often hates Hermione Granger.

"I'd like a cup of tea, Severus."

Severus looks up from writing in his Antikytherian work journal and snorts. "You can't digest tea, Lucius. It would bollix up your circuitry."

"I'd like a cup of tea, Severus," Lucius repeats as if Snape hasn't spoken. When Severus makes no answer, he states his request again, this time in an altered, higher voice.

"No wonder you were sent back for an overhaul," Severus mutters.

He drops his quill into a nearby ink pot and withdraws his wand, running it over Lucius' head and torso. "You've tried drinking tea, haven't you?" Severus grouses. "I thought I programmed you to refuse food or drink if it was offered to you." He moves behind Lucius and pushes the long blond hair over one shoulder and tugs aside the robes so he can access the panel on the Kyther's back. He opens it and inspects the wires and servos embedded in the Kyther's spinal column. He unplugs one of the connections.

"Severus, I cannot see. And I still don't have my tea."

"Bloody tea," Severus grinds out. "You wouldn't be here if you'd just stick to the damn programming!"

"Why does Lucius get to call you 'Severus' when I must refer to you as Professor Snape?"

Severus halts his work and glances over at the dimly-lit corner of the workroom where Granger is observing his work from the shadows. "Come out of there at once."

"I do not wish to," she replies.

His eyes narrow. Granger has never disobeyed a direct order, or any order for that matter. "Nonsense. I can't see you in the shadows; it's like speaking to a Hogwarts ghost. Now, sit on the chair."

She moves forward hesitantly, stopping just shy of the light beaming through one of the windows. Severus waits for her to complete her obedience and go to the chair off to his left, but she remains in the gloom.

He sighs in exasperation. "Why are you being obstinate?"

"Why does Lucius call you 'Severus', Professor Snape?" she whispers.

Hairs rise on the back of his neck and arms and he stares at her uneasily. She should not have the ability to adjust the inflection on her voice box. He mentally reviews the modalities and features he deliberately never implemented with her and his trepidation tips over into paranoia. Someone has tampered with his Kyther.

"Where have you been?" Severus demands. "Who has touched you, besides myself?"

"I have been nowhere," she replies. "No one has touched me. Only you."

"You are very upset, Severus," Lucius states, as if discussing the weather.

Severus closes the panel on Lucius' back forcefully, causing Lucius to pitch forward. "Of course I'm upset! Someone has altered Granger's programming!"

"No!" she says, emphatically. "No one has altered me!"

Both the tone of voice and the direct opposition to his statements are, or should be, beyond her capacities. "You shouldn't be able to do that!" Severus spits out, pointing his finger at Granger. "You have no chemicals in your gear and clockwork brain, you have no heart to feel emotions, you have no soul with which to philosophise!"

"That's rather harsh," Lucius says, turning to peer at Granger. "Did you know you were deficient?"

"Yes," she admits, sounding on the verge of sobs. Which is impossible.

Annoyed by Lucius' interference, Severus renders him inert with a flick of his wand and stalks towards Granger. "Turn around."

To his astonishment she actually backs away. "No, please, stop!"

"Turn around, and that is an order!"

Her body becomes rigid and slowly turns her back to him. Severus wastes no time in pulling her towards the light, moving her bushy mane before pushing aside the robe and opening the panel on her back. He searches for any modifications, any new technology or hardware spliced with his original work; waves his wand to detect any alterations not visible to the naked eye, any magical interference. He finds nothing.

"Why does Lucius call—"

"Because he was my friend in ages past," Severus snarls, hoping she will cease this inane questioning. "Because he earned the right long ago."

Granger looks over her shoulder at him. "I have not earned that right, yet." She nods to herself, as if confirming her suspicions. Which again, is impossible. She shouldn't have suspicions. Or the ability to confirm them.

Irritation and fury tinge his next words. He presses his face to her temple and whispers in a fierce tone, "You will never earn that right."

He pushes her away and leaves the workroom. He thinks he hears a sob from the darkness behind him, but that, of course, is impossible.

He collapses onto the battered leather sofa in his sitting room and lies there for a while, trying to rub the tension headache into submission. It doesn't work so he tries to sleep, but the uncomfortable thoughts racing across his mind refuse to slow and finally he is reduced to staring blindly at the collage of clockwork gears adorning his walls. In a time before, these walls would have held jars upon jars of potions and unctions that showcased his true talents. Unfortunately, nearly half of all plant and animal potion ingredients no longer exist—destroyed over the years—and the few that remain are difficult to acquire and beyond his means to purchase. Finding something else to focus on has been, to say the least, a challenge. When the gears on the wall appear to be moving of their own accord, Severus yawns and rubs his eyes, closing them for a brief moment.

Hours later, when he opens them, he finds a cup of steaming tea and two slices of toast with marmalade sitting on the coffee table.

"What is a soul?"

Severus pauses, spanner poised to make another rotation. "A hindrance." He continues working on the Kyther that will—thank Merlin—soon replace the one watching him.

"Does Lucius have a soul?"

Severus looks up and sees that Granger is bent over his worktable, peering into the hollow chest cavity. Her nose is almost touching his. "No," he manages. "He never did."

"So I am like him?"

Severus straightens and wipes his hands on a red cloth. "No, you're not. He serves a purpose." He picks up a tray of tiny metal pieces and begins sorting gears for the heart mechanism.

"If I have no purpose, then why did you—"

"Because I was foolish," he mutters.

"What does a soul look like?"

"I can scarcely hazard a guess."

"Do you have a soul?"

Severus laughs, mirthlessly. "If I do, it is quite tattered and beyond repair."

He waits for the next question but there is a lull, thankfully. It isn't until he turns to retrieve a sprocket that he notices the mug of hot tea on the table behind him. It's on the tip of his tongue to say 'thank you, you read my mind', but that thought sobers him greatly.

It doesn't matter, though. The person who made the tea is no longer in the room.

He remembers twisting a delicate piece of wiring, one that took high magnification and tedious amounts of finagling to sculpt the correct form. He remembers rubbing his tired eyes several times. He remembers leaning on the partition and closing his eyes for just a second.

He has no memory of how he arrived here, in his own bed, dressed in his nightclothes and tucked beneath the duvet.

"Thank you for replacing my hair, Severus," Harry says, smiling. "Again."

Severus arches his brow and smirks. "Fourth time, Potter. I thought you had learned to duck?"

Harry laughs. "So did I! But I hadn't counted on the hatchling. Neither had the dragons. The entanglement was unavoidable."

"Harry is your friend," Granger states as she places a cup of tea on the table in front of Severus.

"Hello, Hermione!"

She startles, her eyes widening as she looks at Potter. Severus watches her closely. Since that day with Lucius, he has observed no reoccurrence of that odd behaviour, only her normal curiosity. He hadn't intended to give her that, but it was so much a part of Granger that apparently the trait had slipped in along with the basic functional logic.

"Hello… Harry." She gives an approximation of a smile, but it is flat. "I'm glad you were not permanently damaged on your latest trip to the Dragon Lands."

So is Severus. Potter was his first functioning Kyther, and thus far he's progressed further than Severus had ever imagined. Potter has been working for almost five years, so his interactive neural network has gathered and integrated extensive data crucial to his duties. Now, Severus realises that Potter seems to have assimilated human emotions, which was one of the ultimate goals of this project. The potential for emotion—the imprint function—had been there from the beginning, of course, but Severus had been uncertain whether the Kyther's neural net would successfully incorporate it and therefore had not bothered to give Potter any sort of boundaries, allowing the Kyther to experience and project emotions as if he were a real person.

But Granger, by Severus' choice, does not have the imprint function. "Why are you 'glad'?" he asks her.

She becomes so very still that Severus thinks she might have malfunctioned. Then, she gives him that blank smile. "Because Harry's functionality directly affects your well-being. If he were destroyed, it would make you sad. You do not create anything when you are melancholy."

Harry gives Severus a knowing look. "She knows you very well."

Severus doesn't know why fury suddenly overwhelms him. He shoves the cup of tea Granger put in front of him off the table, taking a vicious pleasure in the crash of porcelain on the stone floor. "She knows nothing of me!" he roars, and flees the room.

He doesn't look back, even when Potter calls after him.

He remembers collapsing on the sofa and curling in on himself, settling in for a long sulk.

He remembers hearing a fire being laid in the grate and the first crackles of flame upon the wood.

He remembers the ethereal shadows playing across the rusted gears on the walls.

He remembers his shoulders being shifted and his head placed on a soft surface, as slender fingers begin carding through his long hair.

He wants to forget.

But he remembers.

"You are creating another companion."

Severus does not answer Granger's observation; he hopes that if he ignores her, she will stop. Stop what, he doesn't know. He just knows that she needs to stop.

"You are lonely."

"You made me so," Severus counters savagely. He sends her a glare of epic proportions, but it's lost due to the look on her face.

"You do not want me."

"I… I don't want anybody," he says, haltingly.

"Then why did you create me?"

Severus squeezes his eyes shut. "I don't bloody know!"

When he opens them, she is gone.

He hasn't slept in three days. Every time he closes his eyes, he sees Granger standing before him, looking at him with sad eyes. So, he keeps himself awake, unable to face the questions she asks in his dreams.

Or is it the answers?

"You have not slept in ninety-seven hours and forty-two minutes."

Severus feels every second of that time creeping along his bones. "What of it?"

He is surprised when she lays a hand gently on his forearm. "You will collapse in thirty-eight minutes if you do not lie down."

"Go away," he mutters and removes his arm from her grasp, continuing to work on the heart gearbox. "I'm too busy to rest."

"Your ability to function at optimum levels will be greatly affected if you do not rest."

"I'm not a bloody machine!" Severus shouts. His lack of sleep has caused him to be short-tempered—even more so than usual—and his patience, never plentiful, to shrink into non-existence. "I don't need to recharge my power source in order to function! Leave off and find something useful to do before I dismantle you!"

Granger gives him a strange look, one that raises uncomfortable echoes in Severus' mind of his own face seeing his father's raised fist, and backs away. She nods curtly and leaves the workroom.

True to her prediction, Severus' knees buckle thirty-eight minutes later and he falls to the floor, unconscious.

He wakes a day and a half later in his bed, with no memories and no dreams.

Severus hears the tinkering in his workshop before he enters to find Granger bent over his half-built Kyther. "What are you doing?"

Granger, startled, drops the heavy instrument she was using on the framework, denting the body. Several large springs dislodge and fly through the air, one of them embedding itself in the left side of Granger's chest, just about the level of her gearbox heart.

She blinks rapidly. "Professor Snape? I think I am injured."

He barely registers her words, transfixed by the gaping hole that is oozing lubrication and metal shavings where the foreign spring is pressed between the teeth of the gears that are pulling it slowly further into her heart. Then he stirs himself, rushes around the workroom, trying to find the materials to fix it. Her sudden gasp and stumble to the floor send him into a panic.

"Granger? Granger! Run self-diagnostic tests and locate specific areas of malfunction," he orders as he sets his toolkit next to her shoulder.

Her eyes shift quickly, not seeing him, as she relays information. "Left pseudo-ventricle perforated. Prolapse of pseudo-tricuspid valve. Unable to regulate flow of fuel-laden lubrication. Ten centimetres of titanium coil remaining."

Severus stops his preparations. "Remaining until what?"

Granger turns her head and her eyes focus on him. "Once the coil is fully processed through the gearbox, system shutdown will commence." She gives him a sad smile. "This will enable you to utilise my parts for your new companion, so that you will finish sooner and not be lonely anymore."

Tears well in his eyes. "Be quiet," he hisses. He preps the repair kit and starts to peel back the cloth of her robe and extra flesh surrounding the hole.

She grips his wrist, stopping him. "I did some research, Professor. I found that a soul, if it exists, weighs approximately twenty-one grams. I weighed myself and then you, when you were asleep. I am heavier than you, so I must have a soul." Granger smiles brilliantly at him, even as more of the spring is devoured by the gears slowly turning. "I'm sorry I broke myself, but if I cease to function, then you can have my soul. To make reparations for what I did in the age before."

A mournful sound fills the chamber as the tears that Severus has been holding in so long, for eons really, spill and fall where they may: upon his hands, Granger's face, her injured chest. "No, you silly girl!" he chokes out. "There is no need." He shakes off her grasp and works desperately to repair her, without gloves, moisture obscuring his vision. "You owe me nothing," he whispers harshly. His hands shake and the pliers in his hand slip, causing the coil to shift to an odd angle.

Granger's eyes widen. "Professor Snape? Would you please shut down my pain receptors?"

He huffs, a wet and broken noise. "Call me Severus." He presses a thumb to the underside of her right ear. "Better?" At her nod, he continues. Lost in his frantic work, he almost misses the light touch on his face.

She is caressing his hollow cheek, brushing away the tears that are ceaselessly falling. "Does that mean I am your friend?" she asks, her expression so blindingly happy that he can hardly bear to witness it. "That you gave me your name to keep?"

The pliers slip to the floor and Severus' fingertips are pinched in the gears, drawing blood and coating the mechanisms. But he doesn't feel it. He only feels the intensity of Granger's gaze. "Hermione," he breathes.

Her other hand tentatively reaches up and strokes his mouth. "I have always wondered what my name would sound like upon your lips. It sounds like love."

He cannot contain the sob trapped in his throat. He presses his forehead to hers and gives her a tender kiss, uncaring that the flesh is cool to the touch. It is the heart beneath that is most important. The heart beneath…

Quickly, he pulls back, only to see that she has ceased to move, her eyes fixed in a sightless stare. There is no soft hum of a properly operating mechanism. There is no rigidity of frame and pseudo-muscle. Everything is eerily quiet.

He gathers her close, as if embracing a lover, and slowly rocks her. "The sound of love is the first stirrings of compassion within a person's breast." He buries his nose in her frizzy hair. "The strength of love is caring for someone, even if they hate you for it." He cradles her head and presses a kiss to her brow. "The feel of love is the quickening of breath, the warmth of skin, the secret touches in the deepest darkness." He inhales sharply and exhales wetly, hiccoughing. "The proof of love is knowing that if I were granted one more day with you, just one, that I would spend that day making sure you knew how very precious you were to me." Severus slumps to the floor, clutching Hermione's body close. "And when that day is over, I would go with you to wherever your soul is borne, because you shared it with me so that I wouldn't be alone."

He cannot speak for the stricture in his throat, but there is nothing more to say; she will not hear it anyway.

He closes his eyes, wishing it were the last time, and exhaustion and grief pull him down into darkness.

He cannot breathe—a combination of blocked sinuses, swollen eyes and nose, bushy hair and an odd heavy warmth on his chest. The ache in his chest that began the moment Hermione was injured last evening, and he knows will never leave him, is dull this morning. When he shifts to sit up, there is a groan above him—a decidedly feminine groan.

He pries his eyes open and is face to face with a dark-brown gaze, one that doesn't have that preternatural stillness inherent in automatons. "Hermione?" he rasps, his throat still raw.

"Severus?" she says, her voice just as rough. "I feel awful."

He is confounded. Beyond perplexed. She should feel... dead. Or, more accurately, non-functional, as she was never living to begin with. Yet here she is, on his lap, and as close as he is to her throat, he can see an actual visible pulse thrumming away in her veins.

"W-what happened?" he croaks, still unable to reconcile the person—woman?—sitting in his lap with the broken Kyther he'd held mere hours ago.

Hermione shifts position, wincing with pain. "I think…" She arches her neck and Severus hears several pops. "You woke me up."

"You were never asleep," he says. Not exactly brilliant, but it's the best he can come up with. Nothing about this makes sense and yet, here she is. His arms tighten around her involuntarily and he feels the living softness of her.

They both glance down to her chest… and the long vertical scar where her 'injury' was located. "Maybe it's better to say that you fixed me."

Severus places his fingers against the pulse in her neck, marvelling at the smooth, silky skin and warmth emanating from it. "You're truly real," he breathes in amazement. "But how?"

"Real isn't how you're made. It's a thing that happens to you." Hermione touches his mouth, stroking his lips. "You love me. I cannot become unreal. It lasts for always."

"How do you know?"

She lays her cheek, her warm, soft cheek against his and whispers, "Because you have always been real to me."
Tags: 2014 winter fanwork, fic
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