(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: There are three kisses that have defined Severus' life, each given by three very different women. It is the last woman, however, that has been lost to him for five years. How does he find Hermione again?
Note: Many thanks to too_dle_oo for the beta love and adelaidearcher for the cheerleading. Thanks also to lenaa1987 for the beautiful prompt that leapt out at me from the list and refused to let go.
Summary: For five years, the Pensieve has been his crutch, his solace and his addiction. Now that Hermione is back at Hogwarts, will it also be his salvation?
Severus Snape pulled his head from the Pensieve, gasping. He stepped back, fumbling at his desk for a cigarette, then lit one with shaking hands. Exhaling slowly, he focused on his breathing to steady his pounding heart. He traced a finger over his lips, remembering the addictive heat of her mouth on his.
He had to stop doing this to himself. It had been two years. She'd found happiness elsewhere. He supposed he should find a dry husk of contentment in that; the woman he loved was happy. Should it matter that she wasn't with him? He couldn't expect that. In fact, he'd made sure of it, pushing her away as he did.
He crushed out the cigarette. He hadn't meant to do this again. He'd vowed to himself he wouldn't, just as he did every day. And yet, like a man sliding helplessly down a muddy ravine, he found himself back again.
How could he forget her when he spent every night immersed in the memory of her kiss? He should get rid of the Pensieve. One wave of his wand, one simple Combustion Charm, and he would be free.
But not yet.
Not tonight. He couldn't bear being suddenly bereft of the images he lived on, watching again and again until even the smallest detail was seared into his memory. He'd allow himself another day, another glimpse. Then surely he would be able to walk away.
Severus swallowed the last of his cold coffee and opened his portfolio with a grimace. He loathed early morning meetings with Minerva.
He felt her gaze upon him as he rubbed his temples. He was weary after his late night at the Pensieve, and he had been dreading this particular meeting for some time. From the corner of his eye, he saw Minerva open her mouth as if to speak, then stop abruptly, lips pursed. She took out her papers, perusing them for a moment before she spoke.
"I never understood why Hermione left so suddenly once her apprenticeship was complete." She looked at him appraisingly over her glasses. "Did ever she say anything to you?"
"No," he lied.
"Strange." She shrugged. "Still, I'm pleased she's accepted the offer. This will be a real boon for us, and I hope for her as well. I imagine she needs a fresh start." She shook her head, frowning. "So sad what happened with Ronald. Hermione certainly deserved better."
Severus made no reply. He was thankful when Minerva let it pass and moved on to review the other staff additions for the coming year.
Later that evening, he paced restlessly around his office. It was actually happening. The papers were signed, the class rosters complete. Only a few more days until he'd be forced to face her again.
He toyed with the idea of submitting his resignation. Relief flooded him at the thought. Was he that much of a coward, fleeing from the only home he'd known for years just to avoid her?
Quite possibly, yes.
He dreaded seeing her now. She would, inevitably, be older—not that this could ever make her less beautiful in his eyes. But the differences between the Hermione he knew and the Hermione of the present would only serve to highlight the passage of years; the gap between the memories he lived on and the reality of her life in which he had no part. She was returning to Hogwarts, yes, but his Hermione could never come back.
What would she think if she realised how little he'd been able to forget? What sort of pathetic fool would she see when she beheld him again?
He shook his head in a desperate bid to clear away his rising panic. He had to think of something else. He leaned over the Pensieve, scrambling frantically for a distraction, for the solace of a soothing memory. Merlin knew he had few enough of those.
He held his wand to his temple and drew out one shimmering silver thread. He regarded it for a moment with a detached air, watching it swirl languidly, then dropped it in the bowl.
A small, black-haired boy lay on the grass, watching the clouds as they slowly morphed. First he could see a dog, then a dragon, and then a castle. Maybe that was what the Castle looked like, the one his Mam told him about sometimes. The one he might go to if his letter came one day.
He could hear his mother humming softly as she put the clothes on the line to dry, and the sound gave him a comfortable, safe feeling. Laundry day was one of his favourites. Maybe even his very favourite after Fridays, when Mam did baking if there was enough sugar.
The humming dwindled to silence and a sigh. Mam was biting her lip, carefully holding shirts together and pegging them up two at a time now. She noticed him watching and gave him a tight smile. "The shirts are dancing together on the line this time. It will take a little longer for them to dry this way, but isn't it fun?"
He sat up, frowning, and looked to the end of the line where the remaining clothespegs were. He reached out, his index finger touching each peg in his imagination and his lips moving as he tallied them up.
Only seven left where there should have been more than twenty. He was sure the big boys next door took them, just because they could. They were mean. A glance at the clothesline in the next yard revealed a long line of pegs clipped neatly in a row and fury blossomed in his gut. How dare they?
If Da realised she was running out of pegs again, he might be angry and swear that it cost him a pint every time she couldn't keep track of the perfectly good things he'd already bought for her. Why did he keep such a stupid bitch in the first place? Stupid bitch, stupid witch, how fucking magical could she really be, losing every last fucking thing he bought for her? Severus had learned it was best to creep quietly to his bed and stay there when his father started talking like that.
He knew she could take the pegs back if she wanted to. She was strong in a fierce and terrible way, stronger even than Da when she chose to be. One wave of the wand she kept hidden in a box in the closet, and the pegs would all come flying home. But that was a secret he must never speak of, and she would never, never use the wand out in the garden. She would never use the wand on his father, either, which Severus didn't understand. If he had his own wand, he wouldn't hesitate.
He looked again at the garden next door. The battered chain link fence separating the yards was tall to him, but he was a good climber. Mam would surely notice if he tried, though, and scold him for it. Her scolding was gentle, never harshly shouted or accompanied by a swift blow like Da's, but he couldn't bear the crushing weight of knowing he had disappointed her.
He glared at the pegs, willing them to fly as they would if Mam used her wand, wishing he could bring them back for her. He focused on the peg at the nearest end of the row. Under his intense gaze, it wobbled on the line. Slowly at first, then faster, spinning violently. He could hardly contain a crow of delight when it finally sailed through the air towards him; he didn't quite catch it, but Mam didn't notice as it landed in the grass near him. He reached out his hand and tried again.
Mam had clipped the last peg in place as he walked slowly to her, cautiously holding out the bottom hem of his shirt front to keep the clothespegs nestled inside.
"Here, Mama," he held out the edge of his shirt to show her his bounty. "Look what I got for you!"
"Severus, where on earth did you…" Her voice trailed off. She glanced over at the now-empty clothesline in the next yard, her eyes darting around quickly to make sure nobody else was about.
She looked back down at him. Her lips trembled, then curved into a radiant smile. "Oh, my sweet boy," she murmured, kneeling down to wrap her arms around him. "My good, good boy!"
Her hand smoothed his hair and her kiss on his forehead was a soft benediction.
"You're my clever one," she breathed. "My sweet boy, my smart boy. You'll be a fine wizard one day." She cradled his face in her hands. "I am so proud of you," she whispered. He leaned into her loving approval, clothespegs rattling to the ground as he held her tight, one small hand reaching up to twine in her dark hair. She nestled him closer, swaying instinctively as she patted his back. Da was different, and he would never understand, but it didn't matter. He and Mam had each other. They would always have each other. And he would work hard to be the very best wizard he could be, because nothing on Earth could be more worth having than the love he saw shining from his mother's eyes.
He leaned at the window sill after watching the memory, lost in thought. It was strange how the ache never went away. His mother had been dead for years, and not a day went by that he didn't miss her, or wonder how his life might have differed had she lived.
He ran his fingertips along his wand, remembering her happiness the day it chose him. He'd started at Hogwarts with her hand-me-down wand. He'd been afraid to take it, worried she might need it to keep herself safe at home, but she had gently and insistently pressed it into his hands. And it worked. Not as well as his own would have, of course, but it was enough. By the start of his second year, he had earned enough money working odd jobs over the summer to buy his own wand. She had never before gone to Diagon Alley with him, but that day they went together, buying his wand and stopping at Fortescue's afterward. She seemed well then, showing no sign of the disease that was silently creeping along her bones.
Inevitably, his thoughts turned to the summer he'd lost her. He returned to the Pensieve, watching the silver strands shimmering languidly there. So many memories. So many mistakes—a lifetime's worth. Yet there was no question which one he would undo, if only it had been in his power to do so.
Severus stepped into the smoky dimness with an unsettling sense of déjà vu. The flashing lights and pounding music were no different here in an upscale Wizarding nightclub than they were in the seedy Muggle bars he'd wasted his summer in, drinking himself senseless. He paused in the entryway, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the darkness and was startled to feel a hand grasp his arm.
"Medora." He remembered her as the young Rosier girl. He was surprised she was old enough to be there. "Does Evan know you're here?"
She didn't answer, looking him over with an assessing air. "All by yourself tonight?" She gave him a lazy, knowing smile that sent a shiver down his spine and made him keenly aware of the shabby cut of his clothes. "Come with me," She slid her hand down to his wrist and drew him along behind her.
He followed her to a secluded table, where Lucius Malfoy, Regulus Black, and several of his former classmates were drinking. Severus sat down awkwardly, uncertain what he'd expected.
This wasn't it.
Regulus poured a glass of firewhisky and nudged it towards him. "Where have you been all summer?"
Severus sipped the whisky, feeling the smoky sweetness blossom on his tongue. "Home," he said tersely. He let his eyes wander around the room, taking in the pulsing lights and mirrored walls.
"Ah." Regulus sighed. "I'm sorry about your mother." There were murmurs of sympathy around the table.
Severus closed his eyes to shut out the memory of his mother's pale and haggard face, the vitality squeezed from her spare frame like juice from an apple. He drained his glass, and instantly regretted it. His head swam dizzily.
"Even in our world there's no cure for cancer. Muggle treatment methods must be positively barbaric. I'm sorry to hear it," Lucius said, his smooth voice shaded with regret. He almost sounded sincere.
He picked up the bottle. "A shame," he continued. "And I must confess I misjudged you. Here I thought you'd spent your summer chasing after that Mudblood you've been so taken with." He poured another drink for himself and Regulus. He glanced at Severus' empty glass and paused, then set the bottle down. The gesture was not wasted.
Severus shook his head. "She's engaged."
"It's true, then?" Medora gasped. "Regulus, you didn't tell me Sirius was getting married!"
"Not him," Regulus scoffed, waving a dismissive hand, his cigarette filling the air with cloying smoke. "Though I wish he were, if only to savour my sainted mother's reaction." He pitched his voice to a shrill screech. "'Taint of shame on your father's house! Vile stain upon our honour!'"
"And quite right, too," Lucius sniffed. "As if he ever dared to drag such filth home to Mummy. Who's the guilty party, then? Potter?"
Severus nodded, long fingers absently tracing the rim of his glass.
"I'm surprised she's narrowed it down to just one," Lucius said carelessly, his grey-eyed gaze sliding to Severus. "I always thought Evans was something of a loving cup passed from hand to hand around the Quidditch team, hoping to gain a little polish with each turn."
Severus said nothing, feeling his jaw tighten.
Medora shifted, leaning into his side and he felt a hand slide caressingly over his knee under the table.
"I heard Lupin's fit to be tied. Apparently he'd been hoping to snap up Potter's sloppy seconds, but now…" Regulus shook his head.
"Now he'll have to find someone else to tie him up," Medora replied, rolling her eyes. A wave of laughter rippled around the table, until Severus unexpectedly found he couldn't suppress a smile. Regulus leaned forward, his hand warm on Severus' arm. The dark gleam of a tattoo was faintly visible through the silken strands of his fashionably slitted shirt sleeves.
"That's more like it! It's good to see you smile again."
Medora picked up the bottle. "We've all missed you," she added, filling his empty glass. Severus looked up warily, braced for the humiliating punchline. It never came. He relaxed back into his seat.
"Forget about Evans," Regulus said. "She was never worthy of you." His hand still rested on Severus' arm, his thumb tracing slow circles.
Severus took another sip of whisky, swallowing down his anger and humiliation at the thought of Lily and Potter. Regulus and Lucius exchanged glances, and Lucius leaned forward to speak.
"Severus, someone with your potential has far more…interesting prospects. A future that could lead you to satisfactions you never before dared to dream of."
Severus frowned, curiosity stirring lazily under the warm buzz of alcohol. "What are you talking about?"
Regulus' voice was soft against his ear. "We are part of a group that honours our ancient Wizarding heritage. We have our own objectives, our own rules…"
"…our own rewards," Lucius finished. "Then again, absolute power is its own reward. Our lord understands this. Perhaps it intrigues you as well?"
Severus considered, looking at the suddenly silent, waiting faces around the table. He nodded slowly. Lucius smiled. "A wise choice. But first, we need proof of your discretion."
"Your enthusiasm," Medora whispered as her hand slid along his inner thigh.
"Your ability to persevere," Regulus breathed against the back of his neck. His lips brushed Severus' skin lightly.
"Shall we?" Lucius rose from the table. "Consider this your initiation," he smirked.
Severus stood, head spinning. Medora rose with him, hands knotted in his hair as she leaned up to kiss him. Her tongue was hot and insistent along the seam of his lips, opening in a carnal promise so brazen, so unlike the first—the only—chaste peck he'd had from Lily that his knees buckled.
"Steady there," Regulus murmured, holding him with firm hands.
Severus' face flushed searing red in mortification, followed quickly by a wave of profound relief that they didn't mock him. He was faintly shocked to feel Regulus' hands move slowly down, kneading and caressing, cupping the suddenly painful bulge straining the shabby cloth of his trousers, but he made no move to push them away.
How easily and effortlessly he had destroyed his own life.
It was like driving along a twisting coastal road; you took your hands off the wheel for a split second, and that was all it took to go flying over the edge. It was terrifying how quick, how simple and how irreversible it was, and it had taken long years before he found himself back on a calm path again.
And then, fool that he was, an impulsive decision once again swerved him off the road. Although this time—for a few months at least—he had swerved not off to oblivion, but into life.
He turned away from the gilt-edged bowl of the Pensieve. He had no real need of it to recall his time with Hermione; those brief, beautiful months were indelibly seared into his memory. What was it, he wondered, that gave emotion such a terrible power over the human soul, making a recollection of joy or sorrow or humiliation from years ago more real and vivid to him than his memories of last week?
He lit another cigarette, impassively watching the smoke rise as his thoughts turned back to the day it all began.
It was supposed to be a harmless diversion, nothing more.
He often saw Granger in the library that second year after the war. They never spoke, and he was reluctant to admit even to himself there was something comforting about her silent presence. Dark Lords might rise and fall, societies could be brought to the brink of collapse, but through it all, Granger the Insufferable remained, her nose buried in a book and her quill scratching away busily.
Most of her class left Hogwarts after graduation. Only a few remained to take on an Apprenticeship, and Severus was thankful neither Potter nor Weasley were among them. Staffroom gossip kept him well-apprised of the Golden Dunderheads' progress in Auror training and the seemingly on-again-off-again romantic entanglement between Granger and Weasley, and that was more than he cared to know.
He usually encountered her prowling around the same book stacks he frequented. It was strange that so much of her reading seemed to center on Potions. She was Septima's apprentice, after all, not his. Yet almost every night she was in the Library, tirelessly working her way through obscure texts and current potions research.
She'd been monopolising the current issue of Potions Quarterly for several nights when she finally left it behind on the table one evening. He went to retrieve it and noticed an open journal next to the magazine. He'd meant to simply close the book and leave it for her to find the next day, but he found himself drawn to her carefully written equations and notes.
He scanned the page, blinking in surprise. She seemed to be working on a potion to restore lost memories. He wondered who it was intended for.
Her ideas were sound and unexpectedly original, but as he read it again, he noted that she had failed to take into account the highly unstable nature of star thistle juice. Impulsively, he took out his quill and scrawled in the margins.
The addition of burdock root will neutralise the star thistle and provide a more stable base, thus potentially increasing the longevity of your potion's effects.
The next evening, the journal was gone. Granger gave no indication of having read his note. But several days later, he found the open journal on the empty table once again.
I added the burdock root; thank you. The base is stable, but I fear the effects are still not as long-lasting as I require. My calculations suggest wiggentree bark may help. What are your thoughts on this?
He tapped a finger against his lips, considering. It was an interesting question. Gods, how long had it been since he'd had the pleasure of a purely intellectual challenge with no one's life or precious cause hanging in the balance if he failed? He took out his quill and began to write.
Neither of them acknowledged their correspondence. Each evening, she would read at her table, and he would remain in his seat near the window. Each evening, she would leave the journal behind. Eventually the journal moved; it went from being left open on what he thought of as her table to being left closed on the chair near the window, a ribbon marking the current notes.
Granger kept her intentions for the potion to herself. He never asked, and she didn't say. Not knowing what the potion was supposed to counteract limited the usefulness of his suggestions, he was sure. But it hardly mattered. It was a diversion for him, nothing more.
One morning he was startled to find the journal on his chair at the Head Table at breakfast. He opened it quickly, scanning the short lines. Her sloppy scrawl betrayed her excitement.
You were right about the Galanthus Nivalis! I think I'll need to make some adjustments in the brewing time, though. It would be easier if you were available to speak with me about this.
Granger was watching him closely from the Apprentices' Table, dropping her gaze when his eyes met hers. He tucked the journal in his pocket. Septima smiled at him approvingly. "Hermione tells me you've been helping her with her research. It means a great deal to her, you know."
"Poor girl," Minerva added. "I doubt anything will restore her parents' memories, but it's kind of you to try, Severus. I can't imagine the burden she bears. She was only trying to protect them."
He hummed noncommittally. This was for her parents? He vaguely recalled Albus mentioning they had left the country under new identities. He'd assumed another Order member helped her with the necessary Memory Charms; it never occurred to him Miss Granger would be left to her own devices to protect her parents.
Fucking Albus. He shook his head. It wasn't enough to put this burden on the backs of mere children whose own lives were at risk. No, he had to make them responsible for protecting their parents as well.
He sipped his tea, remembering his own mother. Her swift illness and death had been painful enough without the added agony of feeling he was responsible.
He watched Granger as she picked at her breakfast, feeling for the first time a faint stirring of sympathy for her. He'd heard so often from Minerva about Granger's tribulations as a war heroine that it ceased to have any meaning. Hadn't they all suffered? He'd privately believed Granger was one of the lucky ones; she was alive, after all, and unscathed.
But he knew all about guilt and the burden of unintended consequences. And for once, it seemed there was something he could do about it.
He stopped by the Apprentices' Table on his way out of the Hall, taken aback at the delight on her face as he spoke.
"Miss Granger, I'll be in my office this afternoon if you'd care to discuss your project."
He was not surprised to find her waiting outside his office door once his classes were over. She was fidgeting nervously, clutching a dog-eared notebook. He opened the ornately carved door with a wave of his hand and gestured for her to enter ahead of him.
Granger paused, looking over her shoulder to give him a hesitant smile. "Professor, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I can't tell you how much I—"
"Sit." He gestured to the chair across from his desk. "I trust you brought your notes with you?"
"Yes, sir." She held the notebook out.
He took it, flipping through the pages as he spoke. "Am I to understand, Miss Granger, this potion of yours is intended to alleviate the memory loss suffered by your parents?"
"Yes, sir," she leaned forward eagerly. "You see, sir, I—"
"Silence," He intoned. She sat back with a tiny huff of impatience.
"Is this memory loss the result of an Obliviate?"
"No, sir," she shook her head, an echo of shocked horror in her voice. "I used a False Memory Charm. In order to give them new identities and persuade them that they wanted to move to Australia."
"I see," he hummed, setting the notebook down. "I take it you attempted to lift the charm once the war was over?"
She nodded, her eyes downcast.
"Well, initially, I thought it worked. They remembered their real names. They remembered me. But…" She paused, drawing a shaky breath. "There are gaps. Gaps of entire years they can't remember. And even when they do remember, they get confused. Sometimes my father thinks he needs to go to work, but he's thinking of his old dental practice. Not the music store he works at now." She blinked rapidly at the floor. "My mother remembers when I was born, she remembers me starting primary school, but nothing else until my Hogwarts letter arrived. Nothing!"
She looked up at him beseechingly. "I never meant for it to happen this way! I just wanted to keep them safe. I never thought I'd end up robbing them of years. It's like I've robbed them of themselves. Their whole lives. I just…" She gave a shuddering sigh. "I just want them back. Do you think it's even possible?"
He steepled his fingers, lost in thought, and there was a long silence before he spoke. "Quite frankly, Miss Granger, I don't know. As I'm sure you're already aware, the Ministry frowns on interference in cases like this. And I doubt research done in the Wizarding world will be applicable in this case, as any lasting effects from the use of Memory Charms may affect Muggles differently."
Her shoulders slumped. "I see."
"However," he raised a hand, holding her to silence as he continued gruffly, "I will try. And you will try. If it is acceptable to Professor Vector and the Headmistress, I will allow you to use the Potions Lab after your Apprentice duties are complete. I will provide whatever guidance I can."
He folded his arms over his chest. "I need not tell you, Miss Granger, this offer comes with no guarantees. Nor do I need to add that I expect your behaviour to be exemplary."
"No, sir. Thank you, sir." Her tone was subdued, but her smile was radiant, and he was taken aback by the warm gratitude in her eyes.
What a fool he had been to not see the danger! Septima and Minerva's tacit blessing made it easier for him to tell himself at first that he wasn't crossing a line; that there was no line to be crossed. Strangely, it was perfectly acceptable for a bachelor in his forties to spend countless hours closeted away in a Potions Lab with a young woman just barely in her twenties—sweet bleeding Merlin, her twenties!—and the knowledge that Granger was no longer his student made it dangerously easy for him to disregard the years that separated them.
It soon became apparent he wasn't the only one aware that she was no longer his student. The girl talked. Bloody hell, did she talk.
Not while he was speaking, mind. When he spoke, she was attentive. It was almost a pleasure to work with her. As soon as there was a lull, chopping ingredients or waiting while their latest attempt was brewing, she would begin to talk. His stern admonitions to cease that infernal chattering were met with a cheerfully unrepentant grin. She continued to talk. Her voice was low and pleasant, and it was a curiously enjoyable novelty to hear it in his usually silent Lab.
Eventually, he began to listen.
When had she gone from being Miss Granger to being simply Hermione to him? He couldn't say. He only knew that their conversations became less stilted and more personal. She spoke often of her parents. He learned that her mother loved Joni Mitchell and growing orchids. Her father was a Paul Simon fan, and thanks to his influence, Hermione had the song "You Can Call Me Al" running through her head every time she saw Dumbledore for most of her first year at Hogwarts.
He learned that she loathed eggplant in any form, she was allergic to tea tree oil, and they shared a predilection for honeycomb toffee dipped in dark chocolate.
He learned to see her, not Potter's sidekick or the Insufferable Know-It-All. He saw her sharp, intuitive mind and the social awkwardness that came from being profoundly out of sync with one's chronological peers. He saw that they were not so very different from each other, and that strange truth was a both a balm and a wound to his lonely soul.
For she was beautiful and young and far too good for him, and before he knew it, he was in too deep.
She stirred carefully, counting to herself with each turn of her wand. The loose curls around her face floated upward as steam rose from the cauldron, and he stifled the urge to smooth them back with a gentle hand.
There was a gleaming, mother-of-pearl sheen on the potion's surface. It was their ninth attempt after months of repeated failures. Failures that were at once heart-breaking and glorious because they kept her by his side, close enough to touch, but never touching.
She was, he was certain, unaware how completely she had wormed her way into his heart. Was it love? Obsession? Merely infatuation? He was painfully acquainted with all three, and he wasn't sure it mattered this time. Whatever it was, he would never tell her. The only thing she could possibly want from him was his knowledge. And once he had given her that, once he'd poured out the sum total of his learning like wine at her feet, she would leave. And that was as it should be.
Despite the temptation, he had never led their work astray just to keep her close. He had kept his side of the offer in good faith. Still, she didn't know, and could never know how deeply it pained him to see the shimmering perfection that bubbled gently under her wand.
"Do you think this might be it?" Her voice was breathless as she watched the potion ripple, her cognac-colored eyes wide.
How often had he kissed those eyes open in his dreams, rousing her to his imaginary touch? He looked back into the cauldron. "Perhaps," he allowed reluctantly, and then nodded with a jerk. "Yes. I believe so." His mouth twisted and he turned away to the window, arms folded tightly across his chest. And now you'll be gone.
He expected shrieks of jubilation; was surprised when they never came. He looked back at her over his shoulder.
She was silent, watching him with patient, knowing eyes. With dawning wonder and horror, he saw her awareness and understanding, knew the hesitant, answering warmth that filled her. He averted his gaze and fled the room, fearing his own response.
It was a fortnight before she returned from her parents. He'd awaited her owl with a mixture of hope and dread, but there had been no word.
He found her that evening, seated at the lab table with her head buried in her arms, hair spilling over her shoulders like a chestnut-coloured cloud. She lifted her head at the sound of his footsteps. Tear tracks were visible on her cheeks, and a knife twisted in his heart.
She shook her head at his unspoken question and slumped onto the table again, shoulders shaking silently. Tentatively, he put a hand on her shoulder, and she began to cry.
"It's never going to work!" she wailed. "I'll never get them back!" She suddenly rose and flung her arms around him, sobbing against his chest. He stood stock-still, almost forgetting to breathe, then slowly, slowly, he relaxed his stiffly held arms. He patted her back awkwardly, chastely.
"Hush," he murmured. "Hush." He gently smoothed her hair, willing his traitorous mind to ignore the warmth of her curves against his body. Gradually, her sobs stilled. She looked up at him sniffling, eyes red-rimmed and swollen and unspeakably lovely. He gently pried her arms away and handed her a handkerchief, lost in bitter self-recrimination.
How selfish could he be, exploiting her need to heal her parents just to keep her close to him? Despite his best efforts, they had failed and failed, and they would keep failing. How many times could he put her through this anguish before he was able to admit the truth to himself? It was simply beyond his capabilities. There was no hope that any potion he created would ever be able to heal them.
"Hermione…" he began uncertainly, "perhaps you need to seek help elsewhere. I…" He faltered at the wounded shock in her eyes. "I don't think I should assist you any longer."
Her lips trembled, though whether it was sorrow or outrage, he wasn't sure. Her face crumpled, and she drew a shuddering breath. "If you can't help me, who can?" she shrieked. "Then there's no hope at all! You're the best Potions Master in Britain!"
"Find someone in Europe! Find someone in America!" he thundered, undone by her tears.
"I don't want anyone else to help me!" she sobbed, wiping her nose furiously.
"I can't do this," he hissed, holding his hands before her, palms upward. "It is not possible for me to help you. These hands will never heal anything! They mangle everything they touch."
"Stop it!" she screamed. "Stop it! I won't let you say that! I won't let you think it!" He felt a rush of shock as she rushed forward, pressing her fingertips to his mouth as if to suppress his words. "It's not your fault! You're the kindest, most brilliant man I've ever known!"
She was so close. Her fingers were cold against his lips in the chilled dungeon air, and the intensity in her words was palpable. Her whisky-stained eyes held him, drew him, and he bent his head slowly, disbelievingly, ignoring the warning alarms in his head as her mouth rose to his kiss.
Her lips were sweetly inexpert, pressing against his with a tremulous hunger. He brought his hands to cup her face, swallowing her gasp as his tongue gently coaxed her to open. He groaned as her trembling hands slid down his back, intoxicated by the heat of her mouth on his; the taste of mint and tea and something uniquely her. She wasn't his, could never be his…but he knew with a desperate certainty that he loved her, that he would always love her, that he could spend a lifetime with her, and that it would still never be enough.
The sun was glowing pink and gold on the horizon the next morning, and still he stood at the window, hands folded behind his back. He had been unable to sleep after she left, bidding him good night with a shy smile. He heard her light footsteps as she entered his office. They faltered, halting, when he did not turn around.
"Severus?" Her voice tripped uncertainly over his name, and his heart gave a painful lurch. It was the first time she had spoken it. The faint reflection of her face was an ashen blur in the window pane, and he dropped his gaze to the sill. He knew what he had to do, and that knowledge was a bitter lump in his throat. He drew a breath and spoke, his voice impassive.
"Miss Granger, I must ask your forgiveness for my inappropriate conduct. I truly regret it. It was—unintentional. And I assure you it will never happen again."
"Unintentional?" Her voice was small.
He continued as though she had not spoken. "I have notified Professor Vector that your evenings will now be available for further Apprentice duties as your research in the Potions Lab is over."
"Over?" she repeated in stunned disbelief. Her face was a scarlet blur in the glass now, her gaping mouth a dark smear. "Over? How can you do this? You promised to help! You said—"
"I said I would try, Miss Granger." His hands knotted behind his back, knuckles white. "And I said there were no guarantees."
He closed his eyes, hating himself for the cold, impersonal words. He longed to turn to her, explain to her, make her see this was the only possible way. He had nothing to offer her but his knowledge, and that was not enough. Only if he refused to help would she seek out someone who could actually restore her parents' memories. And no matter how he loved her, there could be no possible future for them, not when she was so young and brilliant and had so much promise, and he was a pariah who'd earned that title through the vile choices he'd made again and again over his lifetime.
Coward that he was, he could not bear to turn around and see his anguish reflected in her face. He leaned his forehead against the cool glass window pane, unshed tears burning in his eyes. His last memory of her was the sound of a choked sob, and the groaning of the heavy wooden door as it slammed shut behind her.
It had been surprisingly easy to avoid Hermione while she completed her Apprenticeship. They seldom crossed paths during the course of their everyday duties. To ensure he wouldn't see her in the Great Hall or Library he took all his meals in his rooms, and he did his research there, too—habits he had more or less retained to this day, insofar as Minerva would allow. He didn't anticipate those habits changing much now that she was returning to Hogwarts, either. He was no more eager to encounter Granger unexpectedly now than he had been five years ago.
He flipped open the cigarette pack, then crushed it in his hand with a surge of annoyance when he saw that it was empty. He jumped, startled by a sudden flare of green at the Floo, and swore under his breath.
"Severus, are you still up?" Minerva's voice sounded weary.
She sighed. "I'm sorry to trouble you at this hour. I forgot to mention I'll need your final adjustments to the syllabus by lunchtime tomorrow."
He nodded curtly. "Very well."
"Thank you, Severus." Her gaze shifted around the room, lingering on the Pensieve, the half-empty bottle on his desk, his haggard and disheveled appearance. "You spend a great deal of your time closeted away in there, all by yourself. A change of scenery might do you good. Why don't you come and take breakfast with the rest of us in the morning?"
"Is that an order, Headmistress?" he sneered.
Her mouth tightened, there was a flash of anger in the stern look she gave him. "Perhaps it should be, young man. I don't know when you started taking me for your predecessor in this august office, but he wouldn't have allowed you spend your nights digging your own grave, if only because you were too useful to him. I'll thank you to not bite my head off for having the common decency to be concerned for your well-being. So if that means you need to view this as an order, then so be it. I'll see you at breakfast."
It was surprisingly quiet in the Great Hall the next morning; without the din caused by hundreds of students, the only sounds were the quiet clinking of cutlery on plates, and a low buzz of conversation at the Head Table. He slid into a chair at the end of the table and poured himself a cup of coffee.
"Good morning, Severus." Minerva leaned around to nod in his direction. She sat back, and he was transfixed with horror at the unexpected sight of Hermione Granger at the far side of the table.
He met her gaze with an assurance he didn't feel, feeling exposed and vulnerable without the black woolen armour of his formal teaching robes. "Professor Granger," he nodded.
"Professor Snape," she replied evenly.
He was dismayed to see she was even more beautiful than his memories of her. The years had added definition to her features. The mad mane of hair was cropped short, leaving curls that surrounded her face like a sculpture of a Roman goddess, exposing the graceful column of her throat. There was nothing left of the girl he had known, and certainly not in her level gaze, her intelligent eyes missing nothing as they tracked his face, appraising him.
Septima Vector was watching them closely, her dark brows drawn together in disapproval. Minerva added sugar to her tea, her lips thin but her eyes determinedly on her cup as she stirred in silence.
Severus broke their gaze first, leaning over his coffee and allowing his dark hair to fall around his face, shrouding his expression. He gripped the cup tightly, his palms cold with sweat, and ground his teeth at the sound of Septima's voice, carrying sharply to his end of the table. Her choice of subject was, he knew, viciously deliberate.
"How are your parents, Hermione?"
He rose from the table, leaving his coffee behind and fleeing for the sanctuary of his office.
He slumped at his desk, hands knotted tightly in his hair as he tried to organise his wildly erratic thoughts. His eyes darted over to the Pensieve, and he had to restrain himself from rushing for the easy comfort it held. A wave of self-loathing washed over him.
She was back, and he was a fool to be surprised by the suddenness of it all. He should have seen this coming. Knowing her, he should have anticipated she'd be back the moment the paperwork was final, meticulously preparing her classroom for the coming year. Gods only knew why she'd decided to return here, but here she was, and here she would remain, at least for the duration of the school year. Teaching contracts were renewed annually; he couldn't imagine she would abandon her responsibilities and leave mid-year, no matter how often he himself fought the temptation to do so as the stress of the year wore on.
No, he would just have to accept her presence and tolerate it. He could avoid her as much as possible—and Merlin knew he intended to do precisely that—but hiding away for a full year would simply not be feasible.
That left him with only one option. He steeled himself for the well-earned brunt of her contempt as he opened the door with shaking hands, and made his way reluctantly to her office.
"Come in," she said promptly at the sound of his knock. Her voice was as beguilingly sweet as he remembered. She turned from the books she was organising on the shelves, her expression becoming shuttered as she saw him. She waited, saying nothing.
He cleared his throat gruffly. "Professor Granger—" he swallowed, then began again. "I owe you an apology."
She folded her arms over her chest, regarding him coolly. "For what? I believe you apologised the last time we spoke, and that was years ago."
He looked miserably at his boots, noticing with detachment that the scuffed toes needed polishing. He drew a breath and tried again, lifting his eyes to meet hers. Her expression was impassive, giving nothing away.
"I should have been able to help your parents. I should have directed you to other Potions Masters, at least, and not left the burden on your shoulders. It was unfair to you and irresponsible. I—I am sorry."
"And that's all you're sorry for?" she scoffed, echoes of bitterness in her tone. "Well, I suppose it's better than nothing. For what it's worth, I don't think anything could help my parents. Not now, anyway, and most likely, not then, either. The charm work was probably so botched that there was no saving their memories, no matter what anyone did." She sighed.
"So there's no need for you to reproach yourself. Not about them, anyway." She shook her head, running a hand through her short chestnut curls. Her bitter resentment seemed to fade, leaving in its wake a weary resignation.
"It was a long time ago. I didn't come here to dredge up old troubles; I've had enough of my own lately. As far as my parents are concerned, I count myself fortunate that we've been able to make new memories together. It's not the same, of course. It will never be the same. But it's something." She shook her head again, an impersonal mask slipping over her features. "There's little point in dwelling on the past. Thank you for coming by, though. I appreciate it."
She held her hand out, her tone briskly professional. "I'm sure it will be a pleasure working with you this year."
Her grip was cold and firm as he shook her hand. "Welcome back to Hogwarts, Professor Granger."
Severus walked around the Lake in a fog of numb despair before making his way back to his office, feeling unashamedly maudlin. He thought he'd understood that she'd moved on, that the Hermione of the present was not the Hermione he'd known. However, knowing it theoretically was entirely different from seeing the proof before him, warm and breathing and undeniable. It had been years since she left, but today? Today was goodbye. He closed his office door and poured himself two fingers of whisky, sipping slowly as he regarded the Pensieve. His consolation, his crutch, his enabler. How many countless hours had he squandered there, wasting his life as the years rolled by? Did he even care? Perhaps it was better to remain there, lost in the paradise of the past, free from the consequences of his own stupidity.
He watched the silver strands swirling lazily. Carefully, he selected one, holding it on the tip of his wand. This one. It was nothing particularly noteworthy. Just an ordinary day in the lab around the time of their fourth failure. He would watch this one, not to rend his heart with her loveliness and his wretched longing, but simply to see the woman he loved as she had been one last time.
He observed with a strange sense of detachment as the Severus of his memory took the fresh burdock root, watching as his own pale hands peeled away the rough exterior, chopping the pale core and giving it to Hermione to stir into the cauldron. His gut clenched at the transparent look of adoration on his own face. What a pathetic fool he'd been, believing he had ever been subtle.
Hermione carefully stirred in the chopped root, biting her lower lip in concentration. She looked back at Severus for instruction, then increased the flame as he directed. Severus watched, dumbstruck, as the potion instantly came to a boil. He blinked, and watched again, then pulled his head from the Pensieve with a gasp, his pulse rioting as he absorbed the implications of what he'd seen. How had he never realised what this meant?
If they boiled the burdock root too quickly, it was possible the stabilising effect would be compromised. Without that, the memory-enhancing properties of the wiggentree bark would never be fully realised, and the potion would fail.
He scrambled for his notes, pulse racing, for once in his life heedlessly tossing aside books and leaving them on the floor where they fell. At last he found the notebook he sought, silently giving thanks that he hadn't burned his notes in a fit of drunken pique after all. Flipping through the battered pages, he traced his own spidery scrawl with a hasty forefinger. Yes! With a reduction in temperature and an increase in brewing time at a low simmer, it was just possible they'd been on the right track all along.
He ran a hand over his forehead, feeling overwhelmed. It wouldn't wipe away the past; it wouldn't bring back the moment they had shared so long ago. But if he could give her this, restore her parents to her and make her life whole again, he owed her that much at least.
Feeling a sense of purpose he hadn't known in years, he started for the library for reference works to check his theory.
He returned to the library several times over the next few weeks, checking and cross-checking references to make sure his calculations were sound before finally beginning to brew. It would be several days before the process was complete. In the meantime, he spent his evenings in the chair by the window, a stack of books at his feet.
Hermione had come in briefly on occasion, greeting Irma and moving quickly to the stacks then leaving again as abruptly, books tucked under her arm.
But tonight, she hesitated.
He kept his gaze firmly on his book, the words on the page an unseen blur as her light tread moved to the table. She paused, then pulled out a chair and settled in like she had before, drawing out her quill and spreading her parchment before her. They sat in silence, neither acknowledging the other; but the mere fact of her presence was gift enough for him.
Carefully, he poured the finished potion into a small bottle, placing a stopper in the top and holding it up; a gleaming golden iridescence shone in the light. Without a test subject to try it on, he couldn't be sure of its efficacy, but by all the Gods, it looked promising. He tucked the bottle in a small cloth pouch, adding a brief note explaining his theory and brewing process. He put it in his pocket and started off for the library, planning to leave the pouch on the table and take his chair by the window.
It was twilight, the sun setting over the Black Lake outside his window when she finally arrived. He watched her covertly over his book, carefully returning his eyes to the text as her gaze flickered in his direction. She sat down at the table, picking up the cloth pouch. She looked it over cautiously with a puzzled air, then opened it.
He'd intended to keep his focus on his book, but the temptation to look up was more than he could bear. She was reading the note with an expression of stunned incredulity. Then she looked at him, and the shining, tentative hope in her eyes took his breath away.
He didn't see her for nearly a week, and in that time he alternated between euphoric anticipation of success and abject despair, certain this was simply the most recent failure in a long line. He was in his office late one evening when he turned to see Hermione standing in the doorway. She was pale with glittering eyes and two bright spots of pink glowing on her cheeks, and the unexpected sight of her startled him so badly he dropped the ink bottle he was holding. It shattered on the floor, the sharp sound pouring a moment's unreasoning fury through his veins.
"Fucking hell, Granger! Don't you ever knock?" He snarled before he could stop himself.
Curiously, she smiled at this, pressing her fingertips to her lips. When she spoke, her voice was soft, and his heart nearly stopped at her words.
"It worked!" She laughed, and the sound washed over him, pure as baptismal water and sweeter than honey. Hell, he'd even throw in a few metaphors about silver bells and rays of sunshine if she would only stay there, her eyes shining with joy and her smile—sweet merciful Nimue, her beautiful smile!—just for him alone.
"My mother took it first. At first we weren't sure, and I really thought maybe nothing would happen. But I got out one of our old photo albums, from a trip we'd taken to Venice when I was eight. And she started to remember! It sounds like such a small, silly thing. She remembered the gondolier sang 'O Sole Mio', and his voice cracked. He was nearly incandescent with shame." She shook her head slowly, smiling in wonder. "And she remembered it all! I can't tell you what that means to me."
"And your father?" he held his breath.
"It helped for him as well, although the effect wasn't as pronounced as it was on Mum. But I was thinking about that on my way back. It might simply be a matter of dosage, or perhaps the formulation would need to be adjusted for male patients? I was thinking if we reduced the proportion of star thistle, it might make the difference. I started doing some calculations on probabilities, just to see what might work. I mean, I hope you don't mind." Her lower lip was caught between her teeth, and she looked away.
Severus shook his head, feeling a bit dazed. "No. I don't mind." He paused. "Are you sure? I mean, with everything that happened…" He trailed off uncertainly.
She paused for a long moment before answering, and when she spoke, her tone was thoughtful and deliberate. "Whatever happened was a long time ago, Severus. I've missed you."
"And I you, Hermione." His lips curved upwards in a slight smile.
"Then for now, that's enough." She reached out, and he felt a warm shock as her fingers twined with his briefly before sliding away.
She moved to the side table in his office. "I wanted to show you my calculations, but they're a bit long. I wish there was more space here." She looked admiringly at the Pensieve. "This is lovely. You know, Minerva's been wanting a Pensieve for the Infirmary, as a training tool for the Apprentices."
"Perhaps she should take this one," he replied. "I don't think I'll be needing it much any more."